Israel Returns Fire on Syria as Rockets From Gaza Persist

Israel Warns of ‘Painful’ Response to Bombings From Gaza, Syria
Following earlier clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants, Israelis run for cover as a siren wails across the southern city of Ashkelon, Israel, on November 10, 2012. Photographer: David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images

Israel faced fire on two fronts for a second day as rockets from the Gaza Strip hit its south, while a Syrian mortar shell landed in the Golan Heights on its northern reaches, drawing a retaliatory strike.

The Israeli tank fire was aimed at the source of the mortar launch across the Syrian frontier and scored “direct hits,” the army said in an e-mailed statement. The army said that “fire emanating from Syria into Israel will not be tolerated and shall be responded to with severity.”

The attacks highlight Israel’s vulnerabilities at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is vying for re-election on Jan. 22. Netanyahu vowed to escalate military operations to defend the country’s citizens.

“I don’t know any of your governments who could accept such a thing,” Netanyahu told foreign ambassadors he took today on a visit to the coastal city of Ashkelon, a target of Gaza rocket strikes. “We will not allow our borders to be violated or our citizens to be fired upon.”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak consulted today with senior military commanders in Tel Aviv on the security situation in the south. Barak raised the prospect of a new ground offensive, the first since Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza in 2009 after a three-week military assault that left more than 1,100 Palestinians dead.

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

According to the Israel police, at least 10 rockets were fired from Gaza today, a marked drop from the more than 100 rockets in the past two days.

Quiet Border

Amid concern about Gaza, Israel faced the prospect that fighting between forces loyal to Syrian Bashar al-Assad and rebels seeking to oust him could destabilize its quietest frontier since the 1973 Middle East war. A mortar from Syria yesterday struck an army post on the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan Heights, causing no injuries. Israeli soldiers responded by firing a warning missile into Syria, and the government filed a complaint with the United Nations.

Barak said Israeli’s military “has been instructed to prevent” the Syrian conflict “from spilling over into our territory. Additional shelling into Israel from Syria will elicit a tougher response, exacting a higher price from Syria.

Israel’s shekel was the worst performer among 31 expanded major currencies tracked by Bloomberg, dropping 0.5 percent to 3.9320 a dollar as of 4:56 p.m. in Tel Aviv, headed for the lowest settlement since Sept. 13.

‘Less Reluctant’

‘‘There is a feeling that something is going to happen, that things are escalating,’’ said Moshe Nir, a trader at Mercantile Discount Bank Ltd. in Tel Aviv. ‘‘All this talk makes people nervous. It makes foreign investors especially jittery as they don’t see it the way we locals do. They are less reluctant to just get out.’’

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, condemned the Gaza violence today and backed Egyptian efforts to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian militant groups.

‘‘I support the mediation efforts by Egypt and reiterate that there is no place for violence in the Middle East,’’ Ashton said in an e-mailed statement.

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 on Nov. 10, wounding four soldiers, the army said in a statement. The Israeli military responded with tank shelling and air strikes into Gaza, including a direct hit on a rocket-launching squad, killing six and wounding more than 30, according to Ashraf al-Qedra, spokesman for the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza.

‘Change Response’

‘‘We need to change our response,’’ Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon said on Army Radio today. ‘‘We need to change it until Hamas says ‘enough.’’’

Barak said Israel holds the Islamic Hamas responsible for the attacks from Gaza and the group will pay a ‘‘severe and painful’’ price for them.

Hamas seized control of Gaza from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party in 2007, ending a partnership government a year after winning elections.

‘‘You can’t rule out a connection between the tensions on the Syrian border and in Gaza,” said Jonathan Spyer, a professor of political science at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “The Islamic Jihad, which is setting the pace in terms of rocket fire, is a client of Iran and Iran is also a main backer of Syria.”

Spyer said he didn’t expect Netanyahu to go for a large operation against Gaza before Israeli elections.

“If he can avoid it, he won’t want a ground incursion,” Spyer said by phone. “It doesn’t fit into his pattern of behavior. In contrast to his predecessors, he tries to diffuse the tensions.”

At the same time, he added that “there is always the danger of things spinning out of control.”

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