Jerusalem: Israel and the militant group Hamas seemed set on a collision course, with an escalation of cross-border clashes around the Gaza Strip, Hamas vowing to avenge the deaths of six of its fighters, and preparations under way for a possible large-scale Israeli operation in the Palestinian coastal territory.
Five Palestinians were killed on Tuesday as Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza. It was the most serious flare-up in and around the territory since November 2012 and came as Israel struggled to contain a wave of violence in Arab towns over the grisly murder of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists.
The aftermath of an Israeli airstrike on Gaza International Airport. Photo: AFP
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas demanded Israel "immediately stop" its air campaign, dubbed Operation Protective Edge, and asked the international community to put pressure on the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But Mr Netanyahu was expected to order a "significant broadening" of the operation at an afternoon meeting with security chiefs and instruct the army to "take off the gloves," a source close to him told army radio.
Spokesman for the Israeli military Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said the army was completing the deployment of two infantry brigades along the border with Gaza and the government had approved the call-up of 1500 reservists, mainly Home Front Command and aerial defence units.
A protester holds a portrait of Mohammad Abu Khadeir, the Palestinian boy who was kidnapped and killed. Photo: AFP
"If last week we were talking about calm being answered by calm," Lerner said, "we are now talking about preparing for an escalation."
Capitalising on broader Israeli-Palestinian tensions after the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank last month and the killing of the Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem last week, Hamas also called for a mass demonstration on Monday night in the volatile West Bank city of Hebron. Hundreds of protesters scuffled with Palestinian Authority security forces and threw stones at them.
The developments were likely to further undermine Hamas' recent reconciliation pact with the more moderate Palestinian Authority leadership based in the West Bank, which has been urging calm rather than protests. Intended to heal a seven-year split between the West Bank and Gaza, the pact resulted in a new government, but little else so far.
An Israeli soldier drives an armoured personnel carrier to take position at the border with Gaza. Photo: AFP
The tit-for-tat Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes continued through Monday. Hamas said that five of its fighters were killed by an Israeli air strike in southern Gaza, and another was killed in a separate air attack. Another militant who was trapped in the tunnel and presumed dead was found wounded but alive.
These were Hamas' heaviest losses in months. Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the movement, said Israel "will not go unpunished for this crime".
Two more Gaza militants, believed to belong to a radical Salafi group, were killed in an Israeli air strike on Sunday night. Israel said they had been involved in the recent rocket fire.
Spokesman for the Health Ministry in Gaza Ashraf al-Qedra said that 15 people, including five children, were also wounded in Israeli air strikes.
About 80 rockets and mortar shells fired from Gaza struck southern Israel on Monday. One reached deep into Israeli territory, crashing into open ground near Beersheba, about 40 kilometres from the border with Gaza. A soldier was wounded by shrapnel from one of the rockets, according to the military.
Hamas' military wing claimed responsibility for firing dozens of rockets into Israel for the first time in this latest round of hostilities that began three weeks ago. In a short video clip, the Hamas military wing accused Israel of bringing death and destruction to Gaza and warned the residents of Beersheba to flee "before it is too late".
Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli general at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, compared the situation to a "Greek tragedy in which both Israel and Hamas are running toward something that neither wants".
Both, he said, were unable to resist internal pressures - in Israel's case from the public and the right wing of the government; and in Hamas' case from other, more radical Islamic organisations in Gaza, which have fanned the flames.
In other political fallout, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister and leader of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, broke off his 20-month alliance with the conservative Likud party led by Mr Netanyahu, citing "fundamental disagreements" between the two. Mr Lieberman has urged much tougher action against Hamas and Gaza.
The Gaza flare-up began in mid-June during Israel's search for the three teens, when Israel arrested many Hamas members across the West Bank. The Israeli military says more than 160 Gaza rockets have struck Israel since.
Israel on Sunday announced it had arrested six Jewish suspects in what police believe was the revenge murder of Mohammad Abu Khadeir, whose charred body was found in Jerusalem on Wednesday, a day after Naftali Fraenkel and Gil-Ad Shaer, both 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, were buried.
Mr Netanyahu phoned the father of a Mohammad's father on Monday to promise that the attackers would be prosecuted, the government said.
"I wish to express my shock and the shock of Israel's citizens over the despicable murder of your son," Mr Netanyahu told Hussein Abu Khadeir. "The murderers will be brought to trial and prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
New York Times, Reuters, AFP