IDF official says ‘nearing war with Gaza', will evacuate border region if needed
Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense
A senior Israeli military official said Thursday that the army is “nearing war with Gaza” and would evacuate Israelis living in communities adjacent to the border if necessary, following a major conflagration that saw over 180 rockets fired at southern Israel.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were mobilizing additional troops and aerial defense batteries in the region on Thursday in anticipation of a prolonged escalation that carried with it the threat of a full-blown war.
"We don't see the end of the escalation. We are closing in on operation in Gaza," the senior IDF official told Israeli media outlets, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We have more capabilities in our arsenal,” he warned. “We are ready to continue attacking, attacking and attacking. Our strikes deeply affect Hamas, it would be better off returning to the understandings reached after Operation Protective Edge,” he said, referencing the last war fought between the sides in 2014.
But a senior Palestinian officials told the Al-Jazeera and Reuters news networks that militants were declaring the current round of fighting "over" and that "continued calm now depends on Israel."
Defense minister Avigdor Liberman spoke with the mayor of Sderot and the heads of the regional councils in the vicinity of the Gaza border on Thursday morning and assured them "we will do what needs to be done" to restore calm to the region.
Raw footage: children in the city of Sderot, Israel, running as a rocket from Gaza explodes near them pic.twitter.com/opqy7XDCp8— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) August 8, 2018
Residents in the border region were instructed by the military to remain within 15-seconds of bomb shelters and to limit the size of public gatherings as rocket attacks continued into Thursday morning.
All trains running between the border town of Sderot and the coastal city of Ashkelon were cancelled and the popular Zikim beach was closed. Farmers were also forbidden from tending to their fields and all children’s summer camps and higher-education activities were cancelled in light of the flare-up.
Thirty of the approximately180 rockets fired into Israel by Palestinian militants in Gaza were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, which is activated only against those projected to hit populated areas.
Several rockets fell in the southern Israeli city of Sderot and border-adjacent Eshkol Regional Council, injuring at least 11 people. One woman, a 30-year-old foreign worker from Thailand, was "gravely wounded" suffering serious injuries to her chest and limbs after a rocket hit her home in the Eshkol Regional Council.
Israel responded to the rocket barrage by striking more than 150 Hamas "military sites" overnight Thursday, including military compounds and weapons manufacturing sites for the Islamist movement.
Three Palestinians, including a pregnant woman and her toddler daughter, were killed and 11 others were injured in Israel's retaliatory strikes in Gaza, the enclave's Hamas-run health ministry said in a statement.
Hamas claimed responsibility for the rocket barrage, saying it came in response to the IDF’s killing of two of its fighters on Tuesday. The two militants were killed after an Israeli tank fired on a Hamas observation post, responding to what it initially identified as gunfire against Israeli troops but was apparently part of a Hamas commando exercise.
“In response to Israel aggression, the Palestinian resistance has launched a large number of rockets in recent hours at the enemy,” a statement by the group said. “There was a promise [to respond] and now it has been fulfilled.”
The IDF said it was "determined to secure the safety of the citizens of Israel and is on high alert and prepared for a wide variety of scenarios."
The conflagration came as Egypt and UN-led efforts had been underway to reach a long-term ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas to bring to an end months of violence along the border and ease tensions in the impoverished Palestinian enclave.
UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov called on both Israel and Hamas to “step back from the brink” and contain the current escalation before it deteriorates with “devastating consequences for all people.”
"For months I have been warning that the humanitarian, security and political crisis in Gaza risks a devastating conflict that nobody wants," he said in a statement.
"Our collective efforts have prevented the situation from exploding until now. If the current escalation however is not contained immediately, the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people."
Hamas was due to inform Egypt on Thursday of its response to a multi-phased five-year ceasefire proposal, the London-based Arabic-language al-Asharq al-Awsat daily reported.
It remained unclear whether Israel would agree to the terms of the truce, especially in light of the latest escalation.
While no details of the proposals have been revealed, the report suggested the truce contains three stages beginning with a commitment by Hamas to cease all hostile actions in exchange for Israel fully opening the Kerem Shalom goods crossing into Gaza as well as the expansion of the fishing zone.
Later stages of the deal would include negotiations on the return of fallen IDF soldiers and Israeli citizens held captive by Hamas in exchange for Israel’s release of prisoners rearrested following a previous prisoner exchange deal in 2011, a source told al-Asharq al-Awsat.
Hamas is holding hostage at least two Israeli civilians who crossed into Gaza during episodes of poor mental health, as well as the bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.
The ceasefire talks followed months of clashes between Israel and Hamas, marked by a surge in cross-border arson attacks and violent clashes along the security fence.
Protests and clashes along the Gaza border since the end of March have seen at least 165 Palestinians killed by Israeli fire.
One Israeli soldier has been shot dead by a Palestinian sniper.
Israel and Hamas were brought to the brink of a full-scale war in two separate military flare-ups in July over the cross-border arson attacks as Israel struck targets in response to the attacks, prompting several barrages of Hamas rocket fire and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes that marked some of the fiercest clashes since 2014.
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