Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at a possible ground incursion into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip as the Palestinian death toll mounted past 40 from intensified air strikes.
Rocket fire from Gaza that sparked the military operation neared Dimona, the southern desert town where Israel’s suspected nuclear weapons facility is located. The army said one rocket was intercepted and two landed on Dimona’s outskirts. Hamas claimed responsibility.
As rocket fire surged, Netanyahu said his military would respond even more forcefully. “We have decided to intensify even further our attacks on Hamas and other terror organizations in Gaza,” he said in a text message today. “The military is prepared for all options.”
Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz spoke explicitly of a possible ground offensive and reoccupation of Gaza, which Israel evacuated in 2005 after 38 years. With hundreds of rockets flying for almost a month, authorities authorized a call-up of 40,000 reservists, and tanks are massed along the border with Gaza. Israeli stocks and the shekel strengthened.
The worst fighting since November 2012 follows the collapse of U.S.-led peace talks in April and the recent killings of Palestinian and Israeli teenagers, further dimming any chance of renewing negotiations soon. The U.S. Embassy said on its website that it will close its Tel Aviv office tomorrow, citing the security situation. Several rockets have been intercepted over the city.
As the Israeli air force ramped up its air strikes, the Palestinian death toll in the past two days climbed to 43, about two-thirds of them civilians, including children, Gaza emergency medical services chief Ashraf al-Qedra said by phone. Some died after disregarding telephoned Israeli warnings to flee before militants’ houses were attacked, witnesses said. The Interior Ministry in Gaza said by e-mail that 60 houses were struck.
Gaza streets were largely empty of traffic and people in the enclave of 1.8 million ventured out sparingly. In Gaza City, dozens of old men, children and women stood in long lines outside bakeries to stock up on bread ahead of a possible Israeli incursion.
“We are afraid that if the situation gets worse and all bakeries and grocery stores close down, we will find ourselves in a big crisis,” said 30-year-old Gaza resident Yazan Rajab. “People will die of starvation because the Rafah crossing with Egypt and the Karm Abu Salem crossing with Israel are closed, and we don’t know if they will be reopened.”
Militants have fired more than 300 rockets at Israel over the past two days, the army said. Targets have expanded to include Dimona, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and as far north as Zichron Yaacov, 88 miles (141 kilometers) from Gaza. No fatalities or serious injuries have been reported since the rocket fire began.
It wasn’t the first time Palestinian militants targeted Dimona: In 2008, two suicide bombers carried out an attack miles from the nuclear facility. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied reports it produces nuclear weapons.
Adele Raemer, 59, a teacher trainer from Kibbutz Nirim near the Gaza border, says the rocket fire forced her to move her daughter’s wedding last Friday to central Israel. While some kibbutz members, especially those with children, moved outside rocket range temporarily, she stayed put to take care of her dogs, she said.
Hundreds of Strikes
“I feel bad for the people on the other side because I think most of them, like me, just want to put food on their table and have safety for their children,” Raemer said. “But I feel that Hamas hasn’t really left us a choice.”
Israel has struck almost 600 targets in Gaza in the past two days, including tunnels militants dug under the border with Israel, their homes, rocket launchers, command centers and training camps, the military said.
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal called on the world to pressure Israel to halt its “aggression.” The Palestinians “know the path to resistance and uprising,” he said in a speech televised by Al-Jazeera and other channels, an allusion to their two uprisings against Israel since 1987.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, at a meeting of Palestinian leaders, denounced the Israeli “bloodshed” in Gaza. “What’s happening in Palestine now is a war on our people,” he said in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Abbas said he appealed to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for help in arranging a truce.
The Palestinian leader said he also spoke with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. Egypt traditionally has played a role in mediating an end to conflicts between Israel and Gaza militants, and its Foreign Ministry has said it’s been in contact with concerned parties.
Israel signaled today that it has set out a wider objective for this campaign than a truce of the sort that ended Israel’s 2009 and 2012 operations in Gaza.
“Our primary goal, of course, is to defend the people of Israel, to restore tranquility, but an additional goal that’s no less important is to hit hard at Hamas, to wipe out Hamas’s military capability,” Steinitz said. Doing so might require Israel to reoccupy Gaza for “several weeks,” Steinitz told Israel Radio, adding that he thought the time for a ground operation “may be nearing.”
Netanyahu has spoken with world leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, to present Israel’s position that “no country would agree to withstand relentless missile strikes and infiltration attempts,” according to a text message from his office. Israel Radio reported today that militants infiltrated southern Israel by sea for a second time in two days, and that two militants were killed in a gunbattle. The army had no immediate comment.
Israel is deploying a third infantry brigade alongside two others already in place on the border and is continuing to call up more reserves, army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said in a phone briefing.
More than 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died in Israel’s last ground incursion into Gaza.
Kerry, who led the failed peace talks, plans to speak to Abbas within the next 24 hours, according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. He also “has been making calls over the past 24 hours to world leaders as we continue to evaluate the situation and look for ways to stop the rocket attacks,” Psaki told reporters in Washington.
Israeli stocks rose 0.8 percent at the close in Tel Aviv, after dropping to their lowest in four months yesterday. The shekel strengthened 0.2 percent against the dollar today after weakening the previous two days.
Gaza militants began bombarding southern Israel after the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers last month led to an Israeli roundup of Hamas operatives in the West Bank. The attacks increased after the suspected revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem last week. The youth was burned alive, the Palestinian attorney general has said, and Jewish suspects were arrested this week. The killing has set off clashes between Arab protesters and Israeli police that continued today.
Netanyahu has blamed the killings of the three Israeli teenagers on Hamas, which has neither confirmed nor denied involvement. Israel, like the U.S. and the European Union, considers Hamas a terrorist organization.