Netanyahu cuts short US trip on rising Gaza tensions

The Israeli military said on Monday it had begun carrying out strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, hours after a Palestinian rocket hit a house near Tel Aviv.
Israeli police examining a house in Moshav Mishmeret, north of Tel Aviv, yesterday that was hit by a rocket that the military said was launched by Hamas from about 120km away. There has been no claim of responsibility for the early morning strike.
Israeli police examining a house in Moshav Mishmeret, north of Tel Aviv, yesterday that was hit by a rocket that the military said was launched by Hamas from about 120km away. There has been no claim of responsibility for the early morning strike.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MISHMERET (Israel) • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to the US yesterday and the military said it dispatched reinforcements to the Gaza border after a rocket attack near Tel Aviv wounded seven people.

Mr Netanyahu threatened a forceful response to the long-range strike amid accusations from opponents in a closely contested Israeli election, two weeks away, that he had been showing weakness in the face of security challenges from Gaza militants.

Mr Netanyahu, who arrived in Washington on Sunday for a four-day visit, said he would fly home right after meeting President Donald Trump at the White House, as planned, yesterday.

"This was a heinous attack on the State of Israel and we will respond strongly," Mr Netanyahu said in a video statement. "I have decided to cut short my visit to the United States. In a few hours, I will meet President Trump and, immediately after that, I will return to Israel to direct our actions close-hand."

The Israeli military said Hamas, the armed group that rules Gaza, fired the rocket that destroyed a house in Mishmeret, a village north of Tel Aviv.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the early morning strike.

The attack coincided with tension ahead of the anniversary this weekend of protests in Gaza that have included Palestinian attempts to breach the frontier and often lethal Israeli fire.

The military said Hamas launched the rocket from about 120km away, making it the longest-range attack from Gaza to have caused casualties since a 2014 war.

A Palestinian official familiar with Egypt's efforts to broker a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas said Egyptian security officials "are working to restore calm - they have been doing so before and after today's rocket".

Israel's Magen David Adom ambulance service said it treated seven people, including an infant, a three-year-old boy, a 12-year-old girl and a 60-year-old woman who was suffering from blast injuries, burns and shrapnel wounds.

"It just made me feel really unsafe all of a sudden, which is a feeling I'm not used to," said 19-year-old Mishmeret resident Nitzan Shifrin.

The Israeli military was assigning two brigades to the Gaza area and some reservists were being called up. "We are prepared for a wide range of scenarios," chief spokesman Ronen Manelis said.

The attack coincided with tension ahead of the anniversary this weekend of protests in Gaza that have included Palestinian attempts to breach the frontier and often lethal Israeli fire.

Palestinians in Gaza have also frequently launched incendiary balloons towards Israeli farms and villages along the frontier - attacks that have triggered Israeli air strikes, at times against Hamas facilities abandoned in advance.

Two rockets were launched at Tel Aviv on March 14, but caused no injuries or damage. Israel blamed them on Hamas, though a security official later said the salvo was set off by accident.

In Gaza, Palestinians were bracing themselves for retaliation as Israel closed its border crossings with the territory and access to the sea.

The prospect of a wider confrontation with Hamas poses a dilemma for Mr Netanyahu as the April 9 ballot nears. Seven weeks of fighting in 2014 against Gaza militants led to heavy casualties and damage in the impoverished territory and rocket strikes against Israel that disrupted daily life.

However, recent Gaza violence has put a dent in Mr Netanyahu's tough-on-security image at a time when he is running neck-and-neck with centrist challenger Benny Gantz, a former armed forces chief, and facing calls for tough action from his political rivals who are competing with him for the right-wing vote.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2019, with the headline 'Netanyahu cuts short US trip on rising Gaza tensions'. Print Edition | Subscribe