Israel rushes forces to southern border with Gaza
JERUSALEM – The Israeli military rushed additional forces to its southern border with the Gaza Strip on Thursday, vowing to halt a growing wave of rocket fire from the Palestinian territory, while new clashes erupted in east Jerusalem in response to the death of an Arab boy who Palestinians say was killed by Israeli extremists.
Israel said the show of force on the Gaza border was a defense measure. But persistent rocket fire raised the prospects of a tough Israeli response, with the military saying more than 40 rockets or mortar shells were fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza on Thursday.
Tensions have been high since three Israeli teenagers were abducted in the West Bank on June 12, sparking a massive manhunt that ended with the discovery of their bodies early this week. Israel has blamed Hamas for the abductions and launched a crackdown on the Islamic militant group in the West Bank, drawing rocket attacks out of Gaza and Israeli airstrikes in a near-daily cycle of retaliation.
The situation deteriorated further on Wednesday after the burned body of a Palestinian youth, whose identity was confirmed Thursday as Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was found in a forest after he was seized near his home in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians accused Israeli extremists of killing the teen in a revenge attack over the deaths of the Israeli youths.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried Thursday to calm the situation, condemning Abu Khdeir’s killing and vowing to find the attackers.
“We don’t know yet the motives or the identities of the perpetrators, but we will. We will bring to justice the criminals responsible for this despicable crime whoever they may be,” Netanyahu said in a speech celebrating U.S. Independence Day at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv. “Murder, riots, incitement, vigilantism, they have no place in our democracy.”
Following an especially intense barrage of rocket fire, including two projectiles that hit homes in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, Israel sent tanks, artillery and ground forces to the border area early Thursday, defense officials said.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, called the move “defensive” and said he hoped the rocket fire would halt.
“Everything we are doing is to de-escalate the situation but on the other hand be prepared for actions that can develop if they do not de-escalate,” Lerner said.
Israel has launched two large-scale operations in Gaza in recent years in response to rocket fire on its south, most recently in 2012. The fighting ended in a cease-fire.
The Israeli military said 34 of the rockets or mortar shells fired Thursday exploded inside Israel while the rest blew up prematurely inside Gaza or were shot down.
Four rockets were fired out of Gaza just before nightfall, with one striking Sderot and the others landing in open areas, the army said. The barrage forced a Channel 10 TV reporter to cut off a live broadcast, and scramble into a shelter for cover, but no injuries were reported.
In all, Palestinian militants have fired roughly 130 rockets toward Israel in recent weeks, according to the Israeli military. The air force has responded with airstrikes on some 70 targets in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
In Gaza, two senior Hamas officials said the group has “no interest” in any kind of escalation and hoped the cease-fire could be restored. But they warned that rocket fire would continue until Israel halts its attacks on Gaza. They spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for discussing internal deliberations.
“Israel has been attacking Gaza since the kidnapping of the teens,” one official said. “Once Israel stops attacking Gaza, we are willing to immediately preserve the truce.”
Israel has blamed Hamas for the deaths of the three teenagers. Hamas has praised the abduction, but has denied responsibility.