Israel kills several Hamas commanders and hints at possible ground invasion of Gaza

By Patrick Kingsley and Isabel Kershne

JERUSALEM – A new round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, set off by tensions over the holy city of Jerusalem, escalated Wednesday (12) as Israel assassinated several Hamas commanders and hinted at a possible ground invasion of their Gaza Strip enclave. The militants responded with a new barrage of more than 1,000 rockets aimed at cities across southern Israel.

The exchange followed dozens of Israeli airstrikes overnight on the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, and several night-time waves of rockets fired from Gaza at Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Israel’s main international airport.

An Israeli military official said three infantry brigades were “preparing for a worst-case scenario”, confirming that a ground invasion could follow the bombardment from the air.

The hostilities have united Palestinians in anger across disparate parts of the occupied territories and within Israel, where there has been major street unrest in Arab communities. They are venting frustration in part over the displacement of Palestinians from land in East Jerusalem and over long-standing discrimination.

Palestinian discontent has festered for years in the absence of peace talks between the two sides, and with little international pressure on Israel to compromise or grant any concessions to Arabs living under occupation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel was fighting on several fronts — one of them its own cities — and was responding with increasing force.

“We will continue the effort to stop the anarchy,” he said.

Netanyahu vowed to restore order to Israel’s cities “with an iron fist if necessary, with all necessary force and with all necessary authority.”

Israel’s latest operation targeted the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas and one of several Palestinian militant factions active in Gaza. The Israeli military said a joint operation of soldiers and intelligence officers across Gaza had simultaneously killed the commanders, who were close to Muhammed Deif, the leader of the Qassam Brigades.

Without Qassam’s soldiers, Hamas would struggle to control Gaza. Its leaders have long been the targets of Israeli assassinations, and Deif himself was wounded in one attempt in 2006.

The wave of unrest and riots has spread across Arab-populated towns in Israel and parts of the occupied West Bank. Two days of Israeli strikes on Gaza have killed at least 53 Palestinians, including 14 children, and wounded more than 300 people in Gaza by Wednesday afternoon, according to Palestinian health officials.

Rockets fired by militants from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, a smaller Palestinian group, targeted the Israeli cities of Ashkelon, Tel Aviv and Lod, among others. At least six people were killed and at least 100 were injured, according to Israeli health officials. One Israeli was killed Wednesday morning by an anti-tank missile near the Gaza perimeter.

The violence was fuelled by a police raid on an Islamic religious site in Jerusalem on Monday (10), which the police said was in response to stone-throwing by Palestinian demonstrators. By Tuesday (11), the conflict had broadened, with civilians on both sides paying a price. The speed of the escalation appeared to take Israelis by surprise.

Compounding the sense of crisis inside Israel, protests and riots resumed Tuesday night in mixed Jewish-Arab towns and Arab population centers across the country as Palestinian citizens of Israel expressed solidarity with Gaza and frustration over discrimination against Arabs within Israel.

Palestinian citizens of Israel rioted in the mixed city of Lod, setting fire to a synagogue and dozens of cars. A popular Jewish-owned fish restaurant went up in flames in the city of Acre, and television images showed a Jewish mob stoning Arab vehicles in the city of Ramla.

-New York Times



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