Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ground invasion looms over Gaza | News , Middle East

THE DAILY STAR

Ground invasion looms over Gaza

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OCCUPIED JERUSALEM/GAZA CITY: An Israeli ground assault into the Gaza Strip loomed Saturday after the Jewish state authorized the mobilization of up 75,000 reservists.
The move followed Palestinian militants’ launch of a rocket Friday that nearly hit Jerusalem for the first time in decades and attacks against Tel Aviv for a second day.
The rocket attacks were a challenge to Israel’s Gaza offensive and came just hours after Egypt’s prime minister, denouncing what he described as Israeli aggression, visited the enclave and said Cairo was prepared to mediate.
Israel’s armed forces announced that a highway leading to the Gaza Strip and two roads bordering the enclave would be off-limits to civilian traffic until further notice.
Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the border area Friday, and the military confirmed it had called up 75,000 reservists to active duty, in what can be seen as preparation for a ground operation.
The decision was taken in a phone vote which was carried out as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv with his inner circle, the Forum of Nine, Channel 2 television reported.
In practice, it means up to 75,00 reserve soldiers can be drafted into action at any time.
Netanyahu convened senior Cabinet ministers in Tel Aviv after the rockets struck to decide on widening the Gaza campaign.
Israel began bombing Gaza on Wednesday with an attack that killed the Hamas military chief. It says its campaign is in response to Hamas missiles fired on its territory. Hamas stepped up rocket attacks in response.
Israeli police said a rocket fired from Gaza landed in the Jerusalem area, outside the city, Friday.
Police said it hit in the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements that stretches south of Jerusalem past Bethlehem from just 5 kilometers beyond the city limits.
It was the first Palestinian rocket since 1970 to reach the vicinity of the holy city, which Israel claims as its capital, and was likely to spur an escalation in its three-day-old air war against militants in Gaza.
Rockets nearly hit Tel Aviv Thursday for the first time since Saddam Hussein’s Iraq fired them during the 1991 Gulf War. An air raid siren rang out Friday when the commercial center was targeted again. Motorists crouched next to cars, many with their hands protecting their heads, while pedestrians scurried for cover in building stairwells.
The rocket crashed into the sea off Tel Aviv “some 200 meters” from the beachfront U.S. Embassy, sending beachgoers fleeing, an eyewitness told AFP.
The Jerusalem and Tel Aviv strikes have caused no casualties or damage to date, but they could be political poison for Netanyahu, a conservative favored to win re-election in January on the strength of his ability to guarantee security.
“The [Israeli army] will continue to hit Hamas hard and are prepared to broaden the action inside Gaza,” Netanyahu said before the rocket attacks on the two cities. Israel newspaper Haaretz reported that rockets had been fired from the direction of Egypt toward the Eshkol Regional Council, east of Gaza.
Asked about Israel massing forces for a possible Gaza invasion, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said: “The Israelis should be aware of the grave results of such a raid and they should bring their body bags.”
Officials in Gaza said 31 Palestinians had been killed in the enclave since Israel began the air offensive with the declared aim of stemming surges of rocket strikes that have disrupted life in southern Israeli towns.
One Palestinian was killed and two wounded in an Israeli strike on a Gaza car Friday evening, shortly after a raid that killed four people in the central Maghazi district, Hamas medical officials said.
Security sources named one of the dead as Ahmad Abu Jalal, a field commander of Hamas’ armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.
The Palestinian dead include 12 militants and 19 civilians, among them eight children and a pregnant woman. Three Israelis were killed by a rocket Thursday.
Early Friday, 85 missiles exploded within 45 minutes in Gaza City, sending black pillars of smoke towering above the coastal strip’s largest city. The Israeli military said it was targeting underground rocket-launching sites.
One missile flattened sections of Hamas’ Interior Ministry, which oversees Hamas security forces, leaving a huge pile of rubble. Another hit an uninhabited house belonging to a senior Hamas commander. Those strikes, together with an attack on a generator building near Haniyeh’s home, suggested that Israel was expanding its offensive beyond military targets.
Hamas Health Minister Mufid al-Mukhalalati warned in a news conference at Gaza City’s Shifa hospital that “there is an acute shortage of medicine and medical supplies.”
He urged “Arab countries and all parties to support the health sector,” thanking Egypt for the help it had already offered.
A solidarity visit to Gaza by Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, whose Islamist government is allied with Hamas but also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, had appeared to open a tiny window to emergency peace diplomacy.
Kandil said: “Egypt will spare no effort ... to stop the aggression and to achieve a truce.”
But a three-hour truce that Israel declared for the duration of Kandil’s visit never took hold.
Israel said 66 rockets launched from the Gaza Strip hit its territory Friday and a further 99 were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will seek Cabinet approval for funds that could provide Israel with three new Iron Dome rocket interceptors, officials said Friday.
Israel Radio’s military affairs correspondent said the army’s Homefront Command had told municipal officials to make civil defense preparations for the possibility that fighting could drag on for seven weeks. An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.
President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed concern that the renewed violence would damage the Middle East peace process.
“The two leaders shared their concerns about the dangers to civilian populations on both sides and expressed their common desire to see an end to the violence,” the White House said, after Obama called the Turkish leader.
The White House had previously made it clear that it blames the Islamist movement Hamas for the latest round of fighting, urging it to halt the firing of rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory.
Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. By contrast, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel, but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.
Abbas’s supporters say they will push ahead with a plan to have Palestine declared an “observer state” rather than a mere “entity” at the U.N. later this month.
Abbas has asked Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby to visit Gaza Saturday or Sunday, Egypt’s state news agency MENA said.
And U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will visit the region within days to push for a truce.
Tunisia’s foreign minister is also set to visit Gaza Saturday “to provide all political support for Gaza” the spokesman for the Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki, said in a statement.
The last Gaza war, involving a three-week-long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-09, killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians. Thirteen Israelis died.