Israeli air strikes pummel 150 targets in Gaza, killing three
Attacks came after militants in Gaza fired 180 mortars and rockets into Israel, the military said
Israeli aircraft struck more than 150 targets in Gaza in response to a barrage of rockets from the Palestinian territory, the Israeli military said Thursday, marking a sharp escalation even as negotiations were taking place over a long-term ceasefire.
Militants in the strip fired more than 180 rockets and mortars into Israel, the Israeli military said. Most were intercepted or fell on open ground. But at least 11 Israelis were injured after projectiles slammed into residential areas, blowing out windows and leaving cars and buildings pockmarked with shrapnel.
In the Israeli air strikes that followed, three Palestinians were killed, including a 23-year old pregnant woman and her 18-month-old daughter, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza.
“She was killed for nothing! What was the guilt of the baby?” asked Said Khamash, a cousin of the woman’s husband, who was injured in the air strike, which left a gaping hole in the ceiling of their modest home in the Wadi al-Salqa area of central Gaza.
The Israeli military said it struck only military targets, including production sites for weapons and tunnels. Also killed was a fighter with Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.
The escalation, one of the most intense exchanges of fire since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, came in the middle of Egyptian-brokered talks in Cairo over a ceasefire between the two sides after repeated outbreaks of violence in recent months.
Diplomatic efforts on Thursday shifted their focus to achieving an immediate de-escalation. But despite the attempts to reach a truce, fighting continued into the evening. Unconfirmed reports that one had been reached late Thursday were denied by an Israeli official in local media.
Earlier in the evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an emergency meeting of his security cabinet. Afterward, it issued a statement saying the military had been directed “to continue taking strong action against the terrorist elements.”
Similar, though shorter, exchanges of fire have occurred several times in recent weeks, but residents of both Gaza and nearby Israeli communities said the latest fighting, which lasted more 24 hours, reached a new level of ferocity.
“We only slept an hour,” said Naomi Zolberg, 34, a resident of the Israeli city of Sderot who said four projectiles hit very close to her home on Wednesday evening as she was inside with two of her children. “People were freaking out. It is not normal to live like this, under the will of the other side.”
Some analysts suggested Hamas had turned up the violence to demonstrate its strength during negotiations, but they warned that such muscle flexing could lead to a new war even if neither side wants a full-fledged conflict.
“As we approach a potential agreement, it’s extremely important for Hamas to deliver the message that we are not going there because we are weak,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired Brigadier General and the former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Israel in turn needs to send the message that there’s a “price to pay,” he said.
The flare-up, however, will distract from finding a more lasting solution to Gaza’s long-term economic problems, he said.
The strip, under partial blockade by Israel for more than a decade, suffers from chronic unemployment and a lack of infrastructure and services. Other discussions in Cairo had focused on how to bring about investment, employment and returning the Palestinian Authority’s control to the territory. Egypt has also only sporadically opened its border with Gaza over the past decade.
The White House has said that easing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is one of its priorities. The enclave’s misery results in instability, which is a major security concern for Israel.
The United Nations representative to the peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, who has attempted to help mediate a ceasefire, said he was “deeply alarmed” by the latest events and warned that they risk turning into a “conflict that nobody wants.”
“If the current escalation, however, is not contained immediately, the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people,” he said in a statement.
As part of a ceasefire deal, Israel is insisting that Hamas stop sending incendiary kites and balloons over the border, Israeli and Palestinian officials say.
After a sleepless night for residents of Gaza and nearby Israeli communities on Wednesday, there was little respite on Thursday morning. Israeli sirens continued to blare, warning of incoming rockets, while air strikes hit more targets in Gaza, even after Palestinian factions declared that the round of violence was “over.”
Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another Gaza militant group, said they had targeted Israeli communities in response to Israel’s “aggression.”
On Tuesday, Israeli tank fire had killed two members of Hamas’s military wing. Israel said the militants had fired on Israeli troops near the border, but Hamas said the militants were taking part in a drill.