Israeli leaders plan response as Gaza violence continues
Egypt is seeking to broker a long-term ceasefire between the two sides.
Israel’s prime minister has convened his security cabinet to plan a response to attacks from Gaza militants, ordering the army to take unspecified “strong action”.
Fighting showed few signs of slowing. Late on Thursday, the Israeli military destroyed a well-known cultural centre in a crowded Gaza City district, claiming it was a Hamas military base, as militants fired rockets towards Israel throughout the evening.
Israel carried out dozens of airstrikes during the day, killing at least three Palestinians, including a pregnant woman and her one-year-old daughter, while Palestinian militants fired scores of rockets into Israel, wounding seven people.
The flare-up came as Egypt continued efforts to broker a long-term ceasefire between the two sides.
Israel’s Channel 10 TV said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had delayed the meeting of his security cabinet by two hours to allow the Egyptians to press forward with their work.
After a four-hour meeting, the cabinet issued a short statement, saying it had directed the army “to continue taking strong action against the terrorist elements”.
It did not elaborate. But shortly before the meeting, Mr Netanyahu and his defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, met top military officials to discuss their options.
An Israeli official said Mr Netanyahu had instructed the army to prepare for “every possibility”.
Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said Israel had “ground troops that are ready to deploy. We are reinforcing the southern command and Gaza division”. He would not comment on Israeli media reports of troops preparing for a possible ground operation.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007. Despite the animosity, the enemies have signalled, through their contacts with Egypt, that they want to avoid another war.
Hamas is demanding the lifting of an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade that has devastated Gaza’s economy, while Israel wants an end to rocket fire, as well as recent border protests and launches of incendiary balloons, and the return of the remains of two dead soldiers and two Israelis believed to be alive and held by Hamas.
Thursday’s fighting, however, brought back memories of the most recent war, in 2014. Air raid sirens wailed in southern Israel overnight and throughout the day, sending families scrambling into bomb shelters, cancelling outdoor summer cultural events and forcing summer camps indoors. The Israeli air force, meanwhile, pounded targets across Gaza.
A Palestinian rocket struck the southern city of Beersheba late in the afternoon, landing in an open area. It was the first time a rocket had hit the city since the 2014 war.
Shortly after, an Israeli airstrike flattened the five-story cultural centre in the Shati refugee camp, a crowded area of Gaza City. The airstrike set off a powerful explosion and sent a huge plume of black smoke into the air, causing crowds to scream in panic. Medical officials said at least seven bystanders were wounded.
The building is home to a popular theatre and exhibits plays and other shows on a daily basis. An Egyptian-Palestinian cultural society also has an office in the building.
“The deliberate targeting of a cultural centre with airstrikes and destruction… is a barbaric act,” said Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman. He said the destruction of the Egyptian cultural office was “an Israeli attempt to sabotage” the Egyptian ceasefire efforts.
The Israeli military said the building served as a Palestinian military installation. Hamas’ Interior Ministry, including its secret police, has offices in an adjacent site, but those offices were not hit in the airstrike.
The Israeli military said it struck some 200 targets throughout Gaza, including Hamas command posts and weapons production and storage facilities. It said a similar number of rockets and mortars were fired at Israel.
Gaza’s Health Ministry identified those killed in the airstrikes as 23-year-old Enas Khamash and her daughter Bayan, as well as a Hamas fighter, Ali Ghandour. The ministry said the militant and the civilians were killed in separate incidents.