Israeli air strikes today killed five Palestinians, including a father and his daughter, as Gaza-based militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel’s south for a fourth consecutive day.
The tensions, which erupted on Friday after Israel killed a Palestinian militant leader, are among the most serious since the Jewish State’s military offensive in Hamas-controlled Gaza over three years ago, and showed little sign of resolution as Islamist militants defied calls for an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.
Yesterday’s deaths in Gaza brought the total Palestinian death toll since Friday to 23. A 65-year-old man and his daughter were among those killed and a teenage boy was killed in an explosion on his way to school. Israel denied responsibility for his death and some accounts suggested that he was killed when explosives he was carrying accidentally detonated. Two Islamic Jihad members were also killed.
Meanwhile, rockets injured an 80-year-old Israeli woman and a child in southern Israel. Another six Israelis have been wounded in the attacks, and schools in the south suspended classes for a second day.
The surging violence drew concerned appeals from Washington and the United Nations to both sides to exercise restraint, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that she condemned, “in the strongest terms the rocket fire from Gaza by terrorists into Israel.”
But hopes for calm appeared to be optimistic in the near future after Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, the two groups behind the rocket attacks, rejected calls for a ceasefire. The former demanded that Israel first stop the violence and end its policy of targeting militants.
“We warn the leaders of the enemy of the consequences of testing our patience. Our patience is limited and shall be turned into fire and destruction upon them,” a masked Islamic Jihad militant told a press conference in Gaza City.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned yesterday that Israel was “prepared to expand its activities as much as is necessary,” but did not elaborate. An Israeli spokesman said the military would not call off the strikes as long as rocket attacks continued, and warned that it would continue to strike at militants intent on carrying out attacks.
The cross-border violence flared up on Friday when Israeli missiles took out the head of the Popular Resistance Committees, Zuhair al-Qaisi, in what Israel admitted was a targeted assassination. Israel, which holds the militant group responsible for an attack from Egypt last August that killed eight Israeli civilians, said that his team was again planning a “major terrorist attack” from Egypt.
Observers do not expect a prolonged escalation, noting that Israel, which is focused on the Iranian nuclear threat, is unlikely to want to get bogged down in a repeat of the 2008-2009 Gaza War that killed up to 1,400 Palestinians. Hamas, which has not been involved in the latest rocket attacks, is also thought to want to avoid a serious escalation.
It remains unclear, though, whether Hamas, which has appeared to toe a more moderate line against Israel in recent months, can rein in the increasingly powerful militant offshoots without appearing weak.
Writing in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, defence commentators Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff said that Hamas faced a dilemma: “Hamas is in difficult straits, not just ideologically - since making efforts to stop the rocket fire looks to most Gazans like capitulating to Israel - but also practically.
“Islamic Jihad, with the help of Iran, has expanded into a military organisation many-thousands strong. Enforcing its authority over it is not so easy for Hamas, especially since it does not want to look too eager to do Israel's bidding.”