Jerusalem: Israel began to mobilise troops on Thursday to the area around the Gaza Strip in response to what it said was a sharp increase in rocket fire into its territory over the past 24 hours. The move comes as tensions between Israelis and Palestinians flared to their worst level in years following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli students and the suspected revenge killing of an Arab teenager in East Jerusalem.
Israel said the deployments were ordered as a defensive measure after an estimated 30 rockets were fired into its territory from Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist militant group Hamas. Israel pounded 15 targets in the Gaza Strip overnight airstrikes — including rocket-launching sites and weapons warehouses — in response to the rocket fire, the Israeli military said.
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Israel bolsters forces along Gaza border
The Israeli military bolstered forces along the border with the Gaza Strip in response to intensifying rocket fire as tensions remained high over the deaths of three Israeli teenagers and an Arab youth.
Several people in the crowded territory were reported injured in the airstrikes. In Israel, a residential building and kindergarten were damaged by Palestinian rocket fire.
“Our activities on the ground are a direct response to Hamas activities of the last 24 hours,” said Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman. He said there was evidence that some of the rockets were fired by Hamas, which signed a cease-fire agreement with Israel after an eight-day war in November 2012.
Lerner said Israel hoped to see a de-escalation in violence but that it was in Hamas’s hands.
“We need to be prepared” for an escalation, he said. “We are taking up defence positions in communities surrounding Gaza.”
Lerner would not give details on the number or types of forces that have been deployed to the southern border with the seaside enclave. He said a limited number of reserve soldiers have been called up to deal with a crisis that many fear could expand.
In addition, Lerner said, the military is bracing for a possible flare-up in violence in the West Bank and in Jerusalem on Friday, the first Muslim prayer day in the holy month of Ramadan. Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces are coordinating to “limit points of friction,” he said.
The deployments near Gaza included tanks, artillery and ground forces, the Associated Press reported.
Violence has flared between Israelis and Palestinians after the bodies of three Israeli teenagers were found in a field near Hebron in the West Bank on Monday and after a Palestinian teenager was kidnapped and killed on Wednesday in a possible revenge attack.
Although the Israeli police have yet to determine whether the latest murder was a “nationalistic” or a criminal act, residents of the Arab teen’s Shuafat neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, where he was abducted, insisted that Israeli settlers were behind the grisly killing. Police found the teenager’s charred body on Wednesday in a forest on the outskirts of the city.
On Wednesday, the death of 16-year-old Mohammad Abu Khieder sparked the worst clashes in years between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem, the tense Arab part of the city where Palestinians hope to establish the capital of a future Palestinian state. Young Palestinians mostly hurled stones and set fire to structures there. Israeli forces responded with tear gas and rubber bullets throughout the day.
Abu Khieder’s body was due to be buried Thursday.
He was killed two days after the discovery of the bodies of three Israeli teenagers who were abducted June 12 near a settlement on the West Bank. The bodies were found in a shallow grave covered by rocks near the tense West Bank city of Hebron.
Israel’s security cabinet met for the third time in as many days on Wednesday to discuss Israel’s response to the murders. No details from the meeting were published. The response is expected to go beyond the airstrikes on Gaza, raids that Israeli officials have linked to the rocket fire.
The killing of the three Israeli teenagers — Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19 — sparked national outrage and collective mourning in Israel. They disappeared while hitchhiking home from their religious schools in the West Bank.
Israel blames Hamas for the killings, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that “Hamas will pay.” The Sunni Islamist group, which Israel, the United States and the European Union have labeled a terrorist organisation, has denied involvement in the deaths of the Israeli teens. Palestinian leaders on the West Bank have accused Israel of making all Palestinians pay for the killings.
The abduction of the teenagers sparked an Israeli security sweep across the West Bank of a scope not seen in years. Israeli troops carried out numerous raids and arrested more than 400 Palestinians, mostly members of Hamas. Seven Palestinians were killed and almost 200 wounded between June 13 and July 1 on the West Bank, according to the United Nations’ aid agency in East Jerusalem.
With tempers running at fever pitch, incitement and racism have been rampant on Israeli social media. In response, the Israeli police said they were launching an investigation into Israeli calls for revenge against Arabs, Israel Radio reported.
On Tuesday evening and throughout the day Wednesday, right-wing Israelis held impromptu demonstrations in Jerusalem, chanting slogans such as “Death to Arabs” and demanding that the government exact collective punishment on Palestinians for the murders of the three Israeli teens.
Hundreds of Jerusalem residents — both Arabs and Israelis — held counterdemonstrations on Wednesday, rallying against racism and calls for revenge. High-level officials spoke at the rally, including Israel’s chief rabbi, David Lau. He said revenge was morally wrong and warned that such acts could endanger the entire region.
The murders of the four teenagers drew widespread condemnation on Wednesday.
“Killing children and deliberate violence against them are unpardonable crimes for which perpetrators must be held accountable,” the United Nations’ children’s agency, UNICEF, said in a statement. It referred to the killings of the Arab teenager and the three Israelis.
The Washington Post