Palestinian militants extended their rocket barrage against Israel to threaten its Dimona nuclear plant as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to ratchet up the military assault on Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian death toll neared 70 since July 8 from Israeli air raids and a firefight with Palestinian commandos who infiltrated across Gaza’s border through the Mediterranean Sea. Netanyahu hinted at a possible ground incursion to stop the hail of more than 300 rockets from the coastal territory.
“No country in the world would agree to suffer relentless missile attacks and infiltration attempts,” Netanyahu said in an e-mailed statement. “We will continue to protect our civilians against Hamas attacks.”
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 today, citing the security situation. Several rockets have been intercepted over the city.
Rocket fire from Gaza came close to 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, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union, claimed responsibility.
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. Authorities approved a call-up of 40,000 reservists, and tanks are massed along the border with Gaza. Israeli stocks and the shekel strengthened.
As the Israeli air force ramped up its air strikes, the Palestinian death toll in the past three days climbed to at least 68, including children, Gaza emergency medical services chief Ashraf al-Qedra said by telephone. Some died after disregarding phoned Israeli warnings to flee before militants’ houses were attacked, witnesses said. The Interior Ministry in Gaza said 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 Gaza resident Yazan Rajab, 30. “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.”
Given the violence in Gaza and the failure of peace talks, Palestinian leaders are considering resuming efforts to gain international recognition of the Palestinian state in organizations such as the United Nations, said Maen Rashid Areikat, the chief representative of the PLO to the U.S.
“In the absence of a political process and the presence of all this Israeli aggression and arrogance of power, the Palestinian leadership will explore whatever can be used to provide protection for the Palestinian people,” Areikat said in remarks to reporters in Washington.
Areikat said the top Palestinian priority right now is “to stop this Israeli assault and stop the rising death toll of innocent Palestinian civilians.” Palestinian leaders expect the U.S. to take a “more decisive approach” to ending the violence, he said.
Palestinian rocket targets in Israel 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 near the nuclear facility. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied reports it produces nuclear weapons.
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 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,” he told Israel Radio, adding that he thought the time for a ground operation “may be nearing.”
Israel Radio reported that militants infiltrated southern Israel by sea for a second time in two days, and that two militants were killed in a gun battle. 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.
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 after weakening the previous two days.