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Middle East

Israeli troops mass outside Gaza Strip as violence escalates

An already tense situation is escalating in Israel’s south and in Gaza, where a four-year-old was reported wounded in an Israeli air strike on Monday afternoon

The Israeli army beefed up its troop deployments around the Gaza Strip on Monday as the militant Hamas movement said it would avenge the deaths of six fighters in Israeli air strikes and Palestinians intensified rocket barrages against southern Israel.

“While last week our message [to Hamas] was that calm would be met with calm, we are now in preparedness for escalation and deterioration,” the army spokesman, Lt-Col Peter Lerner, said.

“Our forces are in a state of forward preparedness with the mission to protect the communities in the south. We’re currently completing a deployment of two brigades and we’ve called up 1,500 reserve troops.”

The escalation of an already tense situation in Israel’s south and in Gaza, where a four-year-old was reported wounded in an Israeli air strike on Monday afternoon, came as recriminations between right and left abounded in Israel after the arrest on Sunday of six Israeli Jews over the killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian.

Police believe the abduction of Mohamed Abu Khdeir, who was burned alive, according to the Palestinian Authority Attorney-General, was a revenge attack for the deaths of three Israeli teens abducted on 12 June. Their corpses were retrieved early last week and they were buried amid national outrage the evening before Abu Khdeir was abducted around 4am in advance of mosque prayers near his house.


Hamas’s armed wing said five of its members were killed in Israeli air strikes in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, Reuters reported. The group said that one of its fighters was killed in an air strike in northern Gaza. The Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel would “pay the price” for escalation.

Masked Palestinian militants march with guns as they attend the funeral of two Fatah militants killed by an Israeli airstrike (AP)

Lt-Col Lerner denied the men were killed by Israeli aircraft, saying Israeli jets had attacked a “terrorist tunnel” to be used for infiltrating Israel a few days ago and that Hamas fighters went to the tunnel on Monday and “their own explosives exploded on them”. Lt-Col Lerner said 40 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel on Monday, which he said represented a marked increase over last week’s daily tolls.

Psychological warfare is already well under way, with Israeli planes dropping leaflets in northern Gaza telling residents that terrorists are taking cover near their residences, the Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported. “Do not stand still,” the leaflets say. “You are being used by terrorists who will not be by your side when you get hurt. Take responsibility.”

Hamas’s armed wing was believed to be responsible for a video advising residents of the southern Israeli city of Beersheba to “run away before it is too late”. The video showed rocket firings and flashed on the screen in Hebrew that “your leaders killed our children and bombed our homes”.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has pledged to restore quiet while also cautioning against any rash decisions in the confrontation with Hamas. On Monday he was jolted when his Foreign Minister, the hard right, anti-Arab politician Avigdor Lieberman took his Yisrael Beiteinu party out of a partnership with Mr Netanyahu’s Likud, citing the premier’s reluctance to order a ground operation in Gaza.

An Israeli soldier drives an armoured personnel carrier as he takes position on the border with the Gaza Strip (AFP)

However, Yisrael Beiteinu will remain in the coalition. “It’s not clear to me, what we are waiting for,” Mr Lieberman said. His move was seen by the veteran Israeli political analyst Leslie Susser as the opening shot in a bid to become premier.

The right-wing politicians joined in the condemnation of the murder of Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian teenager. But left-wing Israelis said the killing should not be viewed in isolation but rather against the backdrop of racism they charge is emanating from the government and the right wing. ‘’The hatred of Arabs in Jewish society is not a question of this attack or another. It is linked to the educational system and can be found in all parts of society,’’ said novelist Nir Baram.

Danny Dayan, a leader of the settlers in the West Bank, said: “We are all united by genuine sorrow about this abhorrent act.”