Israel kills militant commander after Palestinian rocket fire, US calls for peace

Israel kills militant commander after Palestinian rocket fire, US calls for peace
Israel kills militant commander after Palestinian rocket fire, US calls for peace

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Mohamed Nass - Cairo - GAZA/TEL AVIV, May 17 (Reuters) – Israel killed a senior Palestinian militant commander in heavy air strikes on Gaza on Monday and Islamist groups renewed rocket attacks on Israeli cities despite mounting international calls for a ceasefire.

As the fiercest hostilities in the region in years entered a second week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged all sides to protect civilians and said Washington was working intensively behind the scenes to halt the conflict.

Gaza health officials put the Palestinian death toll since the hostilities flared last week at 201, including 58 children and 34 women.

Ten people have been killed in Israel, including two children. Police said an Israeli man also died in hospital on Monday after being attacked and injured in Lod last week by Arab rioters as clashes broke out in mixed Jewish-Arab communities in Israel, police said.

The killing of Hussam Abu Harbeed, Islamic Jihad’s armed commander for north Gaza, was likely to draw a fierce response from the militant group that is fighting alongside Hamas, the Islamist movement that governs the coastal enclave.

The Israeli military said in a statement that Harbeed had been “behind several anti-tank missile terror attacks against Israeli civilians”, and an Israeli general said his country could carry on the fight “forever”.

Militant groups in Gaza also gave no sign that an end to fighting was imminent. Soon after Harbeed’s death, Islamic Jihad said it had fired rockets at the Israeli coastal city of Ashdod, and Israeli police said three people had been slightly hurt.

At least three Palestinians were also killed by an Israeli air strike on a car in Gaza City on Monday, medics said, after a night of heavy Israeli air strikes. Israel’s military said Gaza militants had fired about 60 rockets towards Israeli cities overnight, down from 120 and 200 the two previous nights.

Another Palestinian was killed in an aerial attack on the town of Jabalya, medics said.

“My children couldn’t sleep all night even after the wave of intensive bombing stopped,” said Umm Naeem, 50, a mother of five, as she shopped for bread in Gaza City after the latest Israeli air strikes. “What is happening to us is too much, but Jerusalem deserves all the sacrifices.”

Israel bombed what its military said was 15 km (nine miles) of underground tunnels used by Hamas after Palestinian militants fired rockets from Gaza at the Israeli cities of Beersheba and Ashkelon. Nine residences belonging to high-ranking Hamas commanders in Gaza were also hit, it said.

“We have to continue the war until there is long-term ceasefire – (one) that is not temporary,” Osher Bugam, a resident of the Israel coastal city of Ashkelon, said after a rocket fired from Gaza hit a synagogue there.

‘WAR OF ATTRITION’

On the edge of Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp, firefighters tried to put out fires caused by an Israeli artillery shell to a sponge factory. Vast clouds of smoke filled the skies.

Workers cleared debris from wrecked buildings from the streets and tried to repair damaged telephone and electricity lines. People also searched through the rubble of ruined buildings to retrieve belongings.

Hamas began its rocket assault last Monday after weeks of tensions over a court case to evict several Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, and in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near the city’s al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Palestinians have also become frustrated by setbacks to their aspirations for an independent state and an end to Israeli occupation in recent years.

World concern deepened after an Israeli air strike in Gaza that destroyed several homes on Sunday and which Palestinian health officials said killed 42 people, including 10 children, and persistent rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

US envoy Hady Amr, appointed by President Joe Biden last week, met Palestinian officials in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday, and Blinken said US officials had been “working around the clock” to bring an end to the conflict.

“The United States remains greatly concerned by the escalating violence. Hundreds of people killed or injured, including children being pulled from the rubble,” he said after talks with Denmark’s foreign minister in Copenhagen.

The United States said on Sunday it had made clear it was ready to offer support “should the parties seek a ceasefire”.

Jordan’s King Abdullah said his kingdom was involved in intensive diplomacy to halt the bloodshed, but gave no details.

Brigadier General Yaron Rosen, a former Israeli air division commander, gave no indication on Monday there would be a let-up in attacks in what he called a “war of attrition”.

“The IDF (Israeli military) can go with this forever. And they (Hamas) can go on with their rockets, sadly, also for a very long time. But the price they are paying is rising higher and higher,” he told reporters.

The Israeli military said at least 130 Palestinian combatants had been killed since fighting began. Harbeed had been a commander with Islamic Jihad for 15 years and was behind an attack on the first day of hostilities last week, it said.

The Israeli military said Hamas, a group regarded by Israel, the United States and the European Union as a terrorist movement, and other armed factions had fired about 3,150 rockets from Gaza over the past week. Israel’s missile defence system intercepted most of them, it said.

Hamas said its attacks were in retaliation for Israel’s “ongoing aggression against civilians”.

The Israeli military said civilian casualties were unintentional and that its warplanes attacked a tunnel system used by militants, which collapsed, bringing the homes down. Hamas called it “pre-meditated killing”.

The unrest in Israel’s mixed Jewish and Arab towns opened a new front in the conflict. President Reuven Rivlin warned last week of the risk of civil war between Israel’s Jewish majority and 21 percent Arab minority as fury over the hostilities boiled over.

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Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Rami Ayyub and Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Michelle Nichols in New York, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Angus MacSwan

IMAGE: Smoke and flames rise above a building during Israeli air strikes, amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza City. REUTERS

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