Thursday, December 14, 2017

Israel prepares for invasion

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian militants barraged Israel with more than 200 rockets on Thursday, killing three people as Israel pressed a punishing campaign of airstrikes on militant targets across the Gaza Strip. Three rockets targeted the densely populated Tel Aviv area, setting off air raid sirens in brazen attacks that threatened to trigger an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Late in the day, Israel signaled a ground operation may be imminent as forces moved toward the border area with Gaza. At least 12 trucks were seen transporting tanks and armored personnel carriers, and a number of buses carrying soldiers arrived. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he had authorized the army to call-up additional reservists for possible action. The army said it was prepared to draft up to 30,000 additional troops.

"I ordered the military today to widen the draft of reserve soldiers in order to be able to be ready for any development," Barak said. Military officials said the moves were to prepare for the possibility of a ground invasion, but stressed no decision had been made. Israel TV stations, however, said a ground offensive was expected today.

The fighting, the heaviest in four years, has also killed 15 Palestinians in two days and brought life to a standstill on both sides of the border.

Israel and Hamas have largely observed an informal truce for the past four years. But in recent weeks, the calm unraveled in a bout of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes.

The fighting showed no signs of slowing after dark. Israeli aircraft carried out dozens of attacks on militant targets in Gaza, while militants fired barrages of rockets throughout the day. The fighting began on Wednesday after Israel killed Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari in an airstrike. The offensive follows weeks of rocket fire out of Gaza.

Thursday's attacks on Tel Aviv, some of the deepest rocket strikes from Gaza on record, set air raid sirens blaring and sparked panic in the streets of the normally laid-back commercial and cultural capital. Israeli Channel 2 TV showed panicked Tel Aviv residents running for cover and lying down on the ground after the sirens began wailing. There were no injuries.

One of the rockets landed in an open area of Rishon Lezion, on Tel Aviv's southern outskirts, while police said the other two appeared to have landed in the Mediterranean. Although there were no injuries, Israel considers any attempt to disrupt life in Tel Aviv to be a major escalation.

Defense officials say Israel is prepared to launch a ground invasion into Gaza if necessary. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the army was prepared for a "significant widening" of its Gaza offensive.

"No government would tolerate a situation where nearly a fifth of its people live under a constant barrage of rockets and missile fire, and Israel will not tolerate this situation," he said.

Residents across southern Israel were ordered by authorities to remain close to a network of public bomb shelters.

Three deaths in the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi, where a rocket slammed into an apartment building, were the first in Israel since the fighting began.

Explosions rocked Gaza throughout the day as well. Few in the territory's largest urban area, Gaza City, came out after the call for dawn prayers, and the only vehicles in the streets were ambulances and media cars.

While streets were quiet, bakeries and groceries remained open. No food shortages were reported, and electricity, which suffers frequent outages even during normal times, remained sporadic. Many families keep home generators to maintain power.

"I am trying to calm my children when they hear the sound of explosions," said Zainab Nimr, 33, a mother of three. "We have enough food and water for four days, so I asked my husband to go out and get extra supplies. No one knows when this will end."

Thousands of people, including top Hamas officials, braved the threats to attend the funeral for Jabari, who had long topped Israel's most-wanted list for his role in deadly attacks and building up Hamas' formidable arsenal. Dozens of residents stood solemnly outside their homes or on their balconies as the procession walked by.

"We want to kill in the name of God," chanted mourners as angry gunmen fired automatic weapons into the air. Hundreds of people raised their index fingers in the air, chanting, "God is great." Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh eulogized Jabari in a televised speech.

"What a martyrdom and what a glorious day," he said. "Congratulations. Rest in peace. Feel blessed."

He said Palestinians remained steadfast and defiant during the 22 days of the last Gaza war in 2009 and could hold out for even longer.

In Washington, the United States lined up behind Israel.

"We support Israel's right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

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