Israel strikes media buildings in Gaza, expanding its range of targets

The Israeli military struck two buildings used by journalists in Gaza early Sunday during the fifth day of a campaign against militants in the Palestinian enclave. Hours later, artillery rounds landed in southern Israeli cities and the country’s missile defense system intercepted a powerful long-range rocket over Tel Aviv, the second such incident in as many days.

Sunday’s strikes in Gaza suggested Israel is continuing to expand its range of targets after hitting almost exclusively military sites during the first few days of the operation, dubbed Pillar of Defense. On Saturday, an Israeli bomb demolished the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The crossfire dimmed hopes for a ceasefire as Arab leaders led by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi were set to convene in Cairo on Sunday to discuss a negotiated end to the conflict.

“We are extracting a heavy price from Hamas and the terror organizations,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday during the opening session of the weekly cabinet meeting. “The army is prepared to significantly expand the operation.”

The sites hit in Gaza early Sunday included buildings used by Britain’s Sky News channel and the Dubai-based pan-Arab broadcaster al-Arabiya, the news organizations reported. At least six journalists were wounded, according to a health ministry spokesman in Gaza quoted by wire services.

One of the buildings was used by al-Quds channel, which serves as a mouthpiece for Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza. The Foreign Press Association in Israel issued a letter expressing concern and noting that a United Nations Security Council resolution says that journalists covering conflict civilians that must be protected.

The Israeli military said the sites struck overnight included a “communications antenna used by Hamas to carry out terrorist activity.” In a statement, it said it also hit dozens of underground rocket launchers and a Hamas training base.

Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman said Sunday that the media buildings struck included key Hamas communication infrastructure.

“The target was not journalists,” she told reporters in Jerusalem. “The journalists in these buildings were serving as human shields for Hamas.”

Leibovich said the prospect of a ground operation remains “on the table,” but that the country’s leaders have not yet decided whether to deploy troops into Gaza.

A nighttime lull in rocket fire from Gaza ended shortly after 8 a.m. as rockets landed in Ashkelon and Eshkol, southern Israeli cities. Around 10:30 a.m., the artillery warning siren in Tel Aviv rang out seconds before a long-range rocket was blasted overhead by the country’s anti-missile system, known as Iron Dome. Local media reported that a vehicle struck by debris caught on fire.

Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip expanded to target Hamas government buildings on Saturday. Palestinian militants continued firing a torrent of rockets at civilian areas in southern Israel as both sides stepped up diplomatic efforts to win support.

Israeli airstrikes over Gaza accelerated to nearly 200 early in the day, including one hit that reduced the offices of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to a smoldering concrete heap. That strike, along with others on a police headquarters and smuggling tunnels along the strip’s southern border with Egypt, raised questions about whether Israel had broadened its mission to including toppling the Hamas government that rules the coastal strip.

Just before sundown on Saturday, Hamas said it had fired an Iranian-made Fajr-5 rocket at Tel Aviv, and air raid sirens sounded in that city for the third day in a row. The Israeli military said its newly deployed missile defense battery intercepted the rocket before it landed in the populous coastal city.

Even as airstrikes pounded the area Saturday morning, the foreign minister of Tunisia’s Islamist-led government, Rafik Abdessalem, arrived in Gaza with a delegation, underscoring Hamas’s newfound credibility in a region dramatically altered by the Arab Spring. Abdessalem expressed outrage at what he called Israeli “aggression” and pledged to unite with other Arab countries to end the conflict.

In Cairo, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, whose prime minister visited Gaza on Friday, held meetings with Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani — both Hamas supporters — to discuss what Morsi and other regional leaders have promised will be a more robust response to Israel’s actions than during past conflicts. By Saturday night, rumors of Morsi, Erdogan and Hamas chairman Khaled Meshal hashing out a cease-fire plan were swirling but unconfirmed.

Also in Cairo, the Arab League held an emergency meeting of foreign ministers to discuss a response to the conflict. Many participants called for Arab assistance to the Palestinians and a “reconsideration” of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. But it was unclear if the usually ineffectual league would deliver decisive action by the end of its summit.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, took his country’s case to European leaders. In conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the prime ministers of Italy, Greece and the Czech Republic, Netanyahu argued that “no country in the world would agree to a situation in which its population lives under a constant missile threat,” according to an Israeli government statement. The government announced that it was launching a special operations center for public diplomacy, centered on “the unified message that Israel is under fire.”

The White House reiterated its support for the Israeli operation, which the military says is intended to stop rocket fire that has escalated in the four years since Israel last invaded Gaza to stunt attacks by Hamas, an Islamist movement that Israel and the United States consider a terrorist group.

“Israelis have endured far too much of a threat from these rockets for far too long,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy U.S. national security adviser, told reporters traveling with President Obama to Asia. Rhodes declined to comment on the Israelis’ choice of targets, but he said White House officials “always underscore the importance of avoiding civilian casualties.”

The death toll in Gaza rose to 45 by Saturday evening, Health Ministry officials said. Three Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza since the operation began. An Israeli military spokesman said about 130 rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel on Saturday, 30 of which were intercepted by a missile defense system known as Iron Dome.

Israel made preparations this week for a possible ground invasion, but there were no further signs of one coming on Saturday.

Israel: No shift in mission

The Israeli airstrikes, which continued to target rocket-launching sites and weapons depots, slowed throughout the day, even as Israel appeared to be channeling new efforts toward Hamas civilian institutions. Capt. Eytan Buchman, an Israeli military spokesman, said the strikes were “part of our overarching goal of toppling Hamas’s command and control capabilities” and did not mark a shift in mission.

Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, was apparently not at his office when it was hit.

According to the newspaper Haaretz, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai said the “goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.”

That is how it felt to Hossam and Sanaa al-Dadah, two teachers who had the misfortune of living next door to a house the Israeli military said belonged to a Hamas commander.

At 6 a.m., the family’s windows shattered and their walls burst open. The adjacent house, in the Jabaliya refugee camp, had been demolished in an airstrike, and suddenly theirs was ruined, too.

In the terrifying moments that followed, Hossam al-Dadah, 50, frantically dug his five children out of the rubble, and a few hours later, they had been taken away to their grandparents’ home. But a dust-caked Sanaa, 40, rushed from room to room, crying and gathering her children’s clothing, school bags and dolls and placing them on a sheet.

Israel says Hamas operates in populated areas to use civilians as human shields, and it has dropped thousands of leaflets over Gaza warning civilians to stay away from Hamas operatives. Sanaa said she never got the message.

“Where are we going to go?” she said again and again. “The Israelis are responsible. They are the enemy of God. What did we do? Did we carry any missiles? Did we launch any rockets?”

Outside the house, children played insouciantly in rubble and scorched cars. Rami Mukayed, a 12-year-old in gray trousers, said he reserved his fear for darkness.

“At night, come see me, I’m panicked,” he said. “I play in the morning. I hide in the evening.”

Effect on peace process

In a speech in Cairo, Erdogan said the Gaza conflict called for a new era of Egyptian-Turkish cooperation.

“If Turkey and Egypt unite, everybody will be singing of peace in the region,” he said. “And if we stick together, the region will no longer be dominated by crying and weeping.”

Speakers at the Arab League meeting made the same argument.

“We can no longer accept empty meetings and meaningless resolutions,” said Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby, addressing the assembly at the start of the meeting. He urged Arab states to adopt a “strict stance” on the conflict.

Issandr El Amrani, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who heads a blog called the Arabist, said the Gaza standoff has presented the new Arab Spring governments and other regional heavyweights an opportunity to reconsider their position on Israel and the peace process in a series of talks that could have long-term regional implications.

For years, the Arab League has floated a proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that Israel never took seriously, Amrani said. Arab states might now choose to drop that proposal and adopt more aggressive approaches — Egypt could revise the terms of its peace treaty with Israel; Arab states might consider providing covert aid to Hamas; and others will amplify the pressure on Israel through diplomatic corridors, he said.

By Saturday night, despite mounting rhetorical and symbolic support to Gaza’s Hamas leadership, the Arab ministers’ meeting had announced plans to send a delegation to Gaza but had stopped short of pledging immediate material support to Hamas.

“I’ve seen a lot of talk about doing something and how there’s a collective Arab responsibility to act,” Amrani said, “but no one has suggested anything concrete.”

Reyham Abdul-Karim and Islam Abdul-Karim in Gaza City and Ernesto Londoño in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

by Karin Brulliard

JERUSALEM — Israel continued its aerial assault on targets in the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip early Saturday, launching 200 airstrikes aimed at smuggling tunnels under the enclave's border with Egypt and what the Israeli military said were four Hamas buildings, including the group's headquarters, a police station and a commander's house. Witnesses reported that the offices of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh were destroyed. 

Israeli missiles also knocked out five electricity transformers early Saturday, plunging more than 400,000 people in southern Gaza into darkness, according to the Gaza electricity distribution company.

The attacks came as Israel summoned reservists to active duty and continued to mass troops and armored vehicles along its border with Gaza in preparation for a possible ground invasion. After an initial announcement that Israel had called up 16,000 reservists, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Friday that he had authorized additional call-ups, and local news reports said the new figure was 75,000 troops.

Hamas-fired rockets that landed outside Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Friday, Israel’s main population centers, sharply raised the stakes in the ongoing standoff between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, providing sobering evidence that Palestinian militants possess weaponry that can strike deeper inside Israel than ever before. In particular, the strike near Jerusalem — a city both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital — was viewed as a major provocation that made an Israeli ground invasion seem ever more likely. It was the first strike near the city since 1970.

While Israeli officials maintained that they did not seek war, the intent to send a loud warning to Hamas was evident. By nightfall Friday, the Israeli military said it had closed three roads leading to Gaza, in a further sign of a possible ground invasion, and a spokesman said paratroopers and infantry soldiers were in southern Israel awaiting orders from political leaders.

“Israeli citizens, like any other people, deserve peace and quiet, so they can go about living their lives,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told CNN on Friday. “If we will see in the next 24, 36 hours more rockets launched at us, I think that would be the trigger” for a ground operation, he said.

A ground operation might be seen as necessary to hobble Hamas’s still-potent military capabilities in Gaza, the stated goal of the Israeli operation that began Wednesday But it is a risky proposition, particularly two months before national elections in Israel. While the air offensive has won support from the public and opposition politicians, buttressing Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s already strong security credentials, a ground war could be protracted and messy.

Four years ago, Israel sent ground troops into Gaza one week after the start of an operation also intended to halt unremitting rocket attacks on Israeli population centers by Hamas, an Islamist movement that the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization. It ended two weeks later amid loud international criticism and left 13 Israelis and more than 1,000 Palestinians dead, hundreds among them civilians.

Casualties have been far lower in the current operation, suggesting that Israel is highly motivated to avoid a repeat of Cast Lead, as the 2008-2009 operation was code-named.

By Friday night, Gaza medical officials said 30 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli airstrikes. Three Israelis have been killed by the rocket fire coming out of Gaza.

Temporary truce

Friday began with a temporary truce between Israel and the Gaza militants to accommodate a visit to the coastal strip by Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil. But the cease-fire quickly crumbled, as the Palestinians launched new waves of attacks, and Gaza residents said Israel responded with renewed airstrikes. The Israeli military denied that.

The Israeli military said 196 rockets were fired into Israel from midnight Thursday to Friday evening, 99 of which were intercepted by a missile defense system.

Air raid warning sirens sounded for a second day Friday in Tel Aviv, and for the first time in Jerusalem. Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said two explosions were heard, and police found one rocket in an open area near the West Bank settlement bloc of Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem. He said they were still searching for a second.

Hamas’s military wing said it had fired two Gaza-made M-75 rockets — a new projectile that the group said had a range of about 45 miles — toward Jerusalem, which is about 50 miles north of the Gaza border. The strike offered evidence that hundreds of Israeli airstrikes since Wednesday had not depleted Hamas’s stockpiles of longer-range rockets, which the Israeli military says have been greatly bolstered over the past two years by contributions from Iran and smuggled-in weapons from Libya.

Even if the rocket missed by a handful of miles, targeting Jerusalem was a surprisingly risky move that carried the potential of a major backlash — not just from Israel but from the Palestinian public and Hamas’s Arab allies. East Jerusalem is home to hundreds of thousands of Arabs, and the al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City is Islam’s third-holiest site.

“We are sending a short and simple message: There is no security for any Zionist on any single inch of Palestine, and we plan more surprises,” Abu Obaida, a spokesman for the Hamas militant wing, told the Associated Press.

Earlier Friday, Kandil and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh toured Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital. As a scrum of photographers and camera crews recorded the moment, Kandil placed his hand on the head of a young boy killed in a recent strike.

“I have seen now Gaza, and the hospital, and the martyred child Mohammed Yasser,” Kandil said, pausing as he choked up with emotion.

Flanked by guards in olive flak jackets, he lifted his arms to show reporters spots of blood on the sleeves of his suit jacket. “These are the signs, the blood spatters of our brethren,” Kandil said. “This tragedy cannot be ignored, and the whole world has to shoulder the responsibility to stop its aggression. We are standing with you.”

A deployment of troops into Gaza would probably face little political opposition in Israel, where the operation has gotten widespread support and amounted to a political victory for Netanyahu, if not yet a military one. Labor Party chair Shelly Yacimovich, a reliable Netanyahu critic, described the assassination of the Hamas military chief that opened the offensive as “amazing.”

On Friday, President Shimon Peres, who often serves as a dovish counterweight to Netanyahu, said: “This is not the launch of a war, but a justified defense of our civilians.”

‘We have to trust him’

One of those Israeli civilians, Katya Fayngart, a 28-year-old resident of the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, said she had faith that Netanyahu was working to stop the sirens that during calm times send her racing, with her husband and baby, to their stairwell at least twice a week. These days, she said, the drill happens multiple times an hour.

“We have to trust him to get us to the point when we can live our lives,” she said.

Many Gazans say they think politics drove the Israeli decision to strike the strip, which Israeli officials deny. According to a report in Haaretz newspaper on Friday, Barak — who is also seeking votes for his small political party — said the trigger was a rare opportunity to assassinate Hamas commander Ahmed al-Jabari. Netanyahu was already a clear favorite in the coming elections.

Some Israeli political analysts say that if the timing was motivated by the elections, it was poorly calculated. Two months leaves much room for political damage if, say, civilian casualties, international opposition or rockets on Tel Aviv rise.

Netanyahu would prefer to keep Iran’s nuclear program, not Gaza, his signature security issue, but rocket attacks from Gaza threatened to make him look weak, said Reuven Hazan, chair of the political science department at Hebrew University.

“The prime minister is now putting his political campaign in the hands of every pilot in the air. The pilots are extremely well-trained, and they’re elite. It isn’t the same with ground troops,” he said, adding: “Unless we’re willing to go into Gaza and just level the place, we’re not going to win.”

Islam Abdul-Karim in Gaza and Debbi Wilgoren in Washington contributed to this report.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
Abigail Hauslohner has been The Post’s Cairo bureau chief since 2012. She served previously as a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine and has been covering the Middle East since 2007.
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