Gaza Rockets Hit Israel; Syrian Shell Draws Warning Shots

Israel’s south was pummeled with rocket fire from Gaza today, while a Syrian mortar shell that hit the country’s northern reaches drew Israeli warning shots fired into Syrian territory.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the rising tensions on both fronts at the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, saying Israel is prepared to meet security threats.

“The world needs to understand that Israel will not sit idly by in the face of attempts to attack us. We are prepared to intensify the response,” Netanyahu said in reference to the Gaza violence, according to an e-mailed statement from his office. “At the same time, we are closely monitoring what is happening on our border with Syria and there we are also ready for any development.”

A mortar shell shot from Syria struck an army post on the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan Heights, with no injuries or damage reported, the army said in an e-mailed statement. In response, Israeli soldiers fired artillery warning shots toward Syria, and Israel filed a complaint with the United Nations, the army said.

Anti-Tank Missile

The latest violence in the south was ignited when Palestinian militants fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli patrol along the Gaza Strip border fence yesterday, wounding four soldiers, one seriously, the army said in an e-mailed statement. The Israeli military responded with tank shelling and several air strikes into Gaza, including a direct hit on one rocket-launching squad, killing six and wounding more than 30, according to Ashraf al-Qedra, spokesman for the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza.

“If we are forced to re-enter Gaza in order to strike Hamas and restore security to Israeli residents, we won’t hesitate,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in Tel Aviv of the Gaza violence.

At least 65 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel in the past two days, damaging a number of buildings and injuring three people lightly, said Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman.

“There’s no evidence linking the incidents in the south with that at the north, although both highlight Israel’s vulnerability to be hit simultaneously on two fronts in two unrelated conflicts,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. “Responding to the Syrian incident is difficult, because Israel is caught in a crossfire and doesn’t want to be seen helping either the Syrian regime or the rebels.”

Syria Front

Israel’s Syria front has been largely quiet since it repelled an attempt by Syrian forces to reclaim the Golan Heights area it lost to Israel in the 1967 war. Last week, three Syrian tanks entered the Golan demilitarized zone, and a Syrian mortar shell landed on Israeli-controlled territory as fighting intensifies between forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces seeking to oust him.

The Gaza border has been the site of several violent incidents in the past week. The Islamic Hamas movement seized control of Gaza from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party in 2007, ending a partnership government a year after winning parliamentary elections. The group refuses to recognize Israel or any prior deals signed with it and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.

Armed Militant Group

The Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said in a statement it took responsibility for the attack on the Israeli patrol. The group is one of several Palestinian militant groups in Gaza that operate independently of Hamas. Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for all attacks from Gaza.

Israel discovered an explosives-filled tunnel built underneath the Gaza border into its territory, the army said on Nov. 8.

Two Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire near the border this past week, including a teenage boy, according to Gaza officials. Six have been killed in Gaza by Israeli fire in the past 24 hours, official said.

“The fact that these outbreaks of violence in Gaza are becoming more frequent and severe is cause for concern,” said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “However, the Israeli government would prefer to avoid launching any kind of major ground operation in Gaza, especially as the political changes in Egypt would make it more complicated.”

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, which was voted into power earlier this year, has close ties with Hamas and negotiated a temporary cease-fire on rocket attacks from Gaza after an outburst of violence last month.

Israel conducted a three-week military operation in Gaza to stop rocket attacks that concluded in January 2009. The Hamas Ministry of Health in Gaza said 1,450 Palestinians were killed during that operation, while Israel puts the number at 1,166. The army said 13 Israelis died in the violence.

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