Monday 21 July 2014

Israeli shelling rocks Gaza; Palestinian toll tops 500

'This mission cannot be completed until the strategic threat of tunnels is lifted,' says an Israeli official
Gaza’s neighborhoods came under heavy shelling Monday as rockets continued to fly into Israel, and armed encounters between the sides claimed more lives ahead of U.S Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s  expected arrival in the region.
Even as Kerry and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon prepare to weigh in and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was set to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Qatar, a cease-fire seemed far off and the crisis deeper than ever.
More Palestinians were on the move Monday morning as Israel’s military dropped leaflets advising residents of two refugee camps around Khan Younis to evacuate. Fierce bombing continued overnight, killing at least 34 people, according to Palestinian reports.
One airstrike killed 11 members of the Siyam family in Rafah; in Khan Younis, 16 members of the Abu Jami family died when their house was shelled, the Palestinian news agency Maan reported.
In Shajaiya, emergency teams recovered more bodies from rubble left Sunday by an Israeli bombardment, pushing the Palestinian death toll in the two-week crisis above 500.
Casualties also mounted on the Israeli side as the military pushed deeper into crowded neighborhoods of Gaza in search of an elaborate network of tunnels dug under the strip to harbor weaponry and militants. Militants engaged ground forces with gunfire, antitank missiles and explosives. One fierce battle ended with 10 dead militants; Israeli casualties were not immediately reported.
Since the ground operation began, 18 Israeli soldiers have been killed, including two U.S. citizens, and more than 80 injured.
About 59,000 Israeli reservists are already on active duty as the army stands by for government instructions to expand the operation in numbers and targets if needed. Israeli leaders said Monday that all options were on the table and that the operation would not end before the tunnels that burrow into its territory have been destroyed.
“This is not the time to talk of a cease-fire,” Israeli Cabinet member Gilad Erdan told reporters outside Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon on Monday. “This mission cannot be completed until the strategic threat of tunnels is lifted,” Erdan said, adding that Israel’s military should stay in the northern perimeter of Gaza until an arrangement that would demilitarize Gaza in the long term was achieved.
Several other Cabinet members indicated Monday that the operation was not about to end.
After security consultations with his defense minister and army chief of staff, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the operation would be “expanded until the goal is achieved -- restoring quiet to the citizens of Israel for a long period.”
Since Thursday, 43 shafts leading to 16 tunnels in various locations throughout the Gaza Strip have been uncovered by troops and six tunnels have been destroyed with explosives and other means, according to military officials. Netanyahu said the results of the military campaign against the tunnels “exceeded expectations.”
At least 10 militants were killed Monday morning after infiltrating into Israel through a tunnel emerging near the border with Gaza and firing an antitank missile at an army jeep. It was the third such infiltration by militants into Israel via tunnel in two days, underscoring Israel’s concern about cross-border tunnels.  
In the latest incident, roads were blocked and the residents of several communities were instructed to lock themselves in their homes while the army combed houses and countryside. The army has increased deployment in and around the communities near Gaza to counter the increasing attempts.  
Although appearing slightly diminished in scope and range, rocket fire into Israel has persisted throughout the operation despite the destruction of around 3,000 rocket launchers, according to army officials.
Officials say that Israel has found a working, if not hermetic, answer to incoming rockets with the Iron Dome air-defense system but that the Palestinians retain about 50% of their arsenal. Barrages targeted the south of Israel on Monday morning, with another volley intercepted over Tel Aviv.
Increasingly, Israeli officials speak of the need for a long-term demilitarization of Gaza after a cease-fire is reached. “This is something we will discuss with the international community,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters over the phone. For now, however, the operation remains focused on the tunnels, she said.
There was no official comment on a report in the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Arab on Monday claiming Israel recently bombed weapons earmarked for Hamas and stored in a warehouse in Sudan, north of Khartoum.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.

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