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Mideast War: Israel Bombards Hamas in Gaza, Prepares for Ground Invasion

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Local children from Kiryat Malachi running for shelter as an air siren sounds.Hillary Clinton Heads to Region to Seek Ceasefire

Following over 150 rocket attacks emanating from the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza on Israel’s southern region that commenced on November 9, the Israeli government intensified their response to Hamas on Wednesday, November 14 by massing troops on the border with Gaza, poising for a possible ground invasion, and launching a major military operation it said was designed “to severely impair the command and control chain of the Hamas leadership, as well as its terrorist infrastructure.”

The opening salvo of Israel’s “Operation Pillar of Defense” began with the pinpoint assassination by missile of Ahmed al-Jabari, the operational commander of Hamas’s military wing, known as the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades as he drove through Gaza City. It was followed by Israeli aerial attacks against targets throughout the Hamas-controlled enclave. Enraged by the assassination of al-Jabari, Hamas leadership warned that Israel “had opened the gates of hell upon themselves.”

A notorious and ruthless terrorist, al-Jabari was the captor-in-chief of Sgt. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was abducted by Hamas in 2006 and imprisoned for close to six years. Al-Jabari confirmed that role by escorting the kidnapped Israeli soldier to the handover when he was finally released last year. A key figure in Hamas, both politically and militarily, al-Jabari’s rise to operational control followed an Israeli air strike in 2002 that killed the then commander Salah Shehadeh and seriously injured his successor Mohamed Deif.

Subsequent to al-Jabari’s assassination, Israel struck 25 separate targets, including Hamas storage sites, some of them hidden in residential buildings and said it bombed stockpiles of long-range rockets – including the Iranian Fajr-5, with a range of more than 25 miles, used to devastating effect by Hezbollah in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War.

“Israel is not interested in engaging in war, but Hamas’s provocation in the past days has made it imperative that we act sharply and decisively,” said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. “The operation’s goals are to deal a harsh blow to the rocket firing capabilities. In the long run, I believe this will lead to deterrence and the restoration of quiet in the south.” IDF spokesman Brigadier- General Yoav Mordechai said, “Were I a Hamas operative, I would now opt to shelter underground.”

The escalation in hostilities between Israel and Hamas prompted Egypt to recall its ambassador and demand meetings of the United Nations Security Council and the Arab League. Israel had already been facing growing tensions with its Arab neighbors; confronting lawlessness on its border with Sinai, including cross-border attacks.

Both the rocket fire and the buildup of advanced weaponry in Gaza have increasingly tested Israeli officials and prompted such an intense attack, according to military experts in Israel. On Thursday, November 15, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement saying, “In recent days and weeks, Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza have made normal life impossible for over 1 million Israelis. No government would tolerate a situation where nearly a fifth of its people live under a constant barrage of rockets and missile fire.”

Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti said the Israeli government has “proven that it is a government of war and not peace.” Israel is “the oppressor,” not the victim, he said. British Foreign Secretary William Hague issued a statement saying he is “gravely concerned” and calling on all sides to avoid civilian casualties. “Hamas bears principal responsibility for the current crisis. I utterly condemn rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israel by Hamas and other armed groups.”

Israeli aircraft, tanks and naval gunboats pounded the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip on Thursday and retaliatory rocket salvoes thudded into southern Israel, as terrified residents holed up at home and in underground bunkers in anticipation of heavy fighting on the second day of Israel’s offensive against Islamic militants. On Thursday morning, the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi took a direct hit from Hamas rockets, killing three people and injuring two others. According to the Chabad-Lubavitch web site, the three fatalities included two men and a woman who were members of the city’s Chabad community. They were identified as Ahron Smadga, Yitzchak Amselam, and a 25 year old expectant woman, Mirah (nee Cohen) Scharf. An infant and several children were among the wounded who were taken to nearby hospitals.

After an agreed upon temporary cease fire between Israeli forces and Hamas militants on Friday morning, November 16, to accommodate a visit to Gaza by Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil, rockets from Gaza struck Israeli towns almost as soon as Kandil arrived through the Rafah crossing. Israel immediately struck back, killing at least two militants in Jabalia, north of Gaza City. Kandil declared that Egypt’s loyalty rested squarely with Gaza’s people. “The cause of Palestinians is the cause of all Arabs and Muslims,”’ he said during a visit to Shifa Hospital. “Palestinians are heroes.”

Just hours after Kandil’s visit to Gaza, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi condemned Israel’s “blatant aggression against humanity” and proclaimed that he would “not leave Gaza on its own”. Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood is linked to Hamas, did not elaborate on what form the support would take. Along with other Hamas allies, such as Turkey and Qatar, Egypt is trying to broker a ceasefire between the sides, but with Hamas firing rockets across the border into Israel, and Israel calling up 75,000 reservists, there are fears that any kind of peace agreement may be out of reach. Israel estimates that Hamas militants have 12,000 rockets, including more sophisticated weapons from Iran and from Libyan stockpiles plundered after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime there last year.

Weighing in on the Middle East fighting while on a tour of Asia, President Barack Obama said, “There’s no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. So we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians. And we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”

Also on Friday, air raid sirens could be heard in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as Hamas rockets showed off their expanded reach as Israeli airstrikes pounded Gaza for a third day. Unlike population centers in Israel’s south, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem had not been exposed to rocket fire from Hamas-ruled Gaza before the current round of cross-border fighting.

Last Saturday, the IDF targeted Hamas government buildings in Gaza as well as several rocket launching squads that were involved in firing rockets toward Israel. As part of the IDF targeting of government buildings, Hamas Prime Minster Ismail Haniya’s headquarters, the Hamas Ministry of Interior, and the Hamas police compound were also targeted as was a Hamas training facility in the northern Gaza Strip.

As renewed shelling by Israeli naval vessels was reported late on Sunday night, marking the fifth day of fighting, the day became the deadliest since Israel launched the operation against Hamas militants. At least 21 people were reported to have been killed in Gaza by Israeli bombardments on Sunday. The strike reportedly targeted a Hamas official. Also on Sunday, Hamas militants in Gaza continued to fire rockets at Israel, where injuries were reported in towns such as Ashkelon and Ofakim.

Over the last six days of fighting, Israel reports that Hamas has fired over 1000 missiles into Israel and Israeli officials have said that the Iron Dome missile system has intercepted about 90 percent of them. Iron Dome intercepts rocket or artillery shells only if they are headed for populated areas or sensitive targets; the others it allows to land. After pinpointing a rocket for destruction, the system fires a warhead that destroys the rocket within seconds. Currently, five Iron Dome systems are deployed in Israel. Most are located in the south, near Gaza, and each operates with a 45-mile radius.

An Israeli missile strike on a high-rise media center in Gaza killed Ramez Harb, a senior figure in Islamic Jihad’s military wing, on Monday. Israel escalated its bombing campaign and began attacking homes of activists in Hamas over the weekend. Egypt is leading the efforts to mediate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, but both sides are far apart in their demands. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said at a press conference Monday in Egypt that Palestinian weapons had caught Israel “off guard.”

An Israeli official said Israel hoped to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis and signaled Egypt was likely to play a key role in enforcing any truce. “We prefer the diplomatic solution if it’s possible. If we see it’s not going to bear fruit, we can escalate,” he said. The official said Israel doesn’t want a “quick fix” that will result in renewed fighting months down the road. Instead, Israel wants “international guarantees” that Hamas will not rearm or use Egypt’s neighboring Sinai peninsula for militant activity.

A senior Egyptian official told The Associated Press on Monday that Hamas and Israel were each presenting Egypt with their conditions for a cease-fire. “I hope that by the end of the day we will receive a final signal of what can be achieved,” said the official. He said Israel and Hamas are both looking for guarantees to ensure a long-term stop to hostilities. The official says Egypt’s aim is to stop the fighting and “find a direct way to lift the siege of Gaza.”

Also on Monday, a Hamas rocket hit an empty school in the coastal city of Ashkelon and rockets landed in open areas of Beersheva, Ashdod, Ashkelon, causing damage in a number of areas. Schools in southern Israel have been closed since the start of the offensive on Wednesday.

From Sunday night to Monday night, aircraft targeted about 80 militant sites, including underground rocket-launching sites, smuggling tunnels and training bases, as well as Palestinian command posts and weapons storage facilities located in buildings owned by militant commanders, the Israeli military said in a press release. Aircraft and gunboats joined forces to attack Hamas police headquarters, and Palestinian rocket squads were struck as they prepared to fire. In all, 1,350 targets in the Gaza Strip have been struck since the Israeli operation began.

Israel and Hamas have put forth widely divergent conditions for a truce. But failure to end the fighting threatens to touch off an Israeli ground invasion, for which thousands of soldiers, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, have already been mobilized and dispatched to Gaza’s border.

On Tuesday morning, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton left Southeast Asia to fly to the Middle East at the behest of President Obama in order to attempt to “de-escalate” the burgeoning violence between Israel and Hamas forces in Gaza.

The decision to dispatch Mrs. Clinton dramatically deepens the American involvement in the crisis. President Obama made a number of late-night phone calls from his Asian tour to the Middle East on Monday night that contributed to his conclusion that he had to become more engaged and that Mrs. Clinton might be able to accomplish something through face-to-face conversations with the region’s leaders.

President Obama is focused on leveraging Egypt’s influence with Hamas to press for a halt to the rocket attacks. “We believe Egypt can and should be a partner in achieving that outcome,” said Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Rhodes reaffirmed that the United States supports Israel’s right to defend itself and said Obama did not ask Netanyahu to hold off a ground incursion into Gaza.

With Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary General, also scheduled to arrive in Israel on Tuesday, a senior official in the prime minister’s office said Israel decided to give more time to diplomacy before launching a ground invasion into Gaza. But Israel has not withdrawn other options.

“I prefer a diplomatic solution,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said in a statement at the start of a meeting in Jerusalem with the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle. “I hope that we can get one but if not, we have every right to defend ourselves with other means and we shall use them.” “As you know, we seek a diplomatic unwinding to this, through the discussions of ceasefire,” Netanyahu added. “But if the firing continues, we will have to take broader action and we won’t hesitate to do so.”

About three hours before Mr. Ban was scheduled to meet Netanyahu in Jerusalem, sirens sounded across Jerusalem in the early afternoon announcing an incoming rocket from Gaza. The military wing of Hamas said it had fired at the city. The rocket fell short, landing harmlessly in an open ground near a Palestinian village, just south of the city.

Hamas terrorists fired more than 70 rockets in heavy barrages at southern Israel on Tuesday morning, and 8 of them struck in densely populated areas. A soldier was wounded in one rocket attack, according to the military. Houses were hit in Beersheba and Netivot, causing damage but no injuries. Other rockets hit a car and damaged a bus in Beersheba. The passengers had disembarked on hearing a warning siren and escaped harm. About 27 rockets aimed at populated areas were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket missile system and others landed in open ground.

On Tuesday morning, the Israeli military said that its air force had struck at 11 Hamas squads involved in planting explosives and firing rockets, as well as underground rocket launchers and a store of weapons and ammunition. The military said it had also used tank shells and artillery fire against unspecified targets in Gaza.

At press time, Hamas official Ayman Taha told Reuters from Cairo that Israel and Hamas forces from the Gaza Strip have agreed to an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire that will come into force at midnight local time. “An agreement for calm has been reached. It will be declared at 9.00 p.m. and go into effect at midnight,” Taha said. However, Israel’s official spokesperson Mark Regev stated to Wolf Blitzer on CNN that no such agreement had been finalized yet.

Before press time, it was reported that there were two more Israeli casualties. On Tuesday morning, an 18-year-old IDF soldier, Cpl. Yosef Partuk, a resident of Emanuel , was killed in a mortar attack in the Eshkol Regional Council area. The victim of the Eshkol Regional Council attack, wherein three mortar shells landed in a kibbutz, died of massive injuries.

Separately on Tuesday, Israeli airstrikes killed three Palestinian journalists in their cars, according to  a Gaza health official and the director of the Hamas-run Al Aqsa TV. Israel conceded it had purposely targeted the men, claiming they had ties to Hamas militants.

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