Mohammed Mursi

Hamas targets Jerusalem as Israel prepares for ground offensive

Militants in Gaza Strip fire rocket at holy city for the first time in decades as Israel puts reservists on standby ahead of possible ground invasion

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 11:40am

Palestinian militants fired a rocket aimed at Jerusalem for the first time in decades yesterday, opening a new front in three days of fierce fighting.

A morning of heavy rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel shattered plans for a temporary ceasefire during a visit to Gaza by the Egyptian prime minister that showed the shifting dynamics of Middle East politics since the turmoil of the Arab Spring uprisings.

The Israeli military seemed to be edging closer to a ground invasion of Gaza, saying forces were "on standby". Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman, said the military had called up 16,000 reservists.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the rocket targeting Jerusalem landed in an open area near Gush Ezion, a Jewish bloc in the West Bank southeast of the city. It was the first Palestinian rocket since 1970 to reach the vicinity of the holy city and marked a major escalation by Gaza militants.

Located roughly 75 kilometres away from the Gaza border, Jerusalem had been thought to be out of range.

"We are sending a short and simple message: There is no security for any Zionist on any single inch of Palestine and we plan more surprises," Abu Obeida, spokesman for the Hamas militant wing, said.

It marks a bit of a gamble for the militants. Gush Ezion is close to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem and just a few kilometres from the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City, one of Islam's holiest sites. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live in Jerusalem and nearby areas of the West Bank.

Israel began the offensive on Wednesday by assassinating Hamas' military chief and striking dozens of rocket launchers.

Israel's preparations for a ground offensive seemed to pick up yesterday after more attempts to land rockets in Tel Aviv added new urgency while Hamas itself seemed emboldened by Egypt's support.

Initially, the Egyptian initiative was portrayed as a potential harbinger of reduced hostilities, and, as Prime Minister Hesham Kandil of Egypt prepared to travel to Gaza, Israel agreed to a temporary conditional ceasefire for the visit. But the truce never took root.

Israel Radio said Palestinian militants had fired 25 rockets into southern Israel. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

What sounded like airstrikes by Israeli F-16s were also audible in Gaza City. The Israeli military said no such strikes had taken place, but the Hamas Health Ministry reported that two people, including a child, were killed in the north of Gaza City while the Egyptian delegation was on the ground.

Kandil and Haniyeh visited the Al Shifa hospital, saying they had carried the body of Mohammed Yasser, one of eight children who Palestinian health officials say have been killed in the surge of violence.

Like President Mohammed Mursi of Egypt on Thursday, Kandil walked a delicate line between support for Hamas, condemnation of Israel and a quest for calm.

"The aim of this visit is not only to show political support but to support the Palestinian people on the ground," Kandil said. He also called on the Palestinians to repair the rift between Hamas in Gaza and the Fatah group that dominates the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

"That's the only way to liberate Palestine," he said.

Associated Press, The New York Times