Israel prepared to expand operation against Hamas in Gaza

Israel prepared to expand operation against Hamas in Gaza
Tuesday, July 8, 2014 - 7:22am

An Israeli security operation against the militant group Hamas "will probably not end within several days," Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said Tuesday.

The development appeared to confirm fears that the conflict would continue to escalate.

"We will not tolerate rocket fire and we are prepared to expand the operation and to exact a heavy toll on Hamas," he said.

Militants have fired more than 100 rockets at Israel since Monday night, the Israeli military said on Twitter on Tuesday.

Overnight, Israel ramped up its airstrikes on Hamas in Gaza.

The Israeli military's Operation Protective Edge against Hamas has entered a "substantial phase," with airstrikes hitting around 50 targets, including militant houses and military compounds, Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told CNN.

"We are determined to restore a state of security," he said.

Hamas security sources reported at least 60 Israeli airstrikes across Gaza, including from F-16s, Apache helicopters and drones. At least 24 people were wounded, Palestinian medical sources in Gaza said.

Seven people have been killed in Gaza since Monday afternoon, including five in an airstrike on a vehicle, Palestinian medical sources said. Officials identified at least one as a Hamas militant. The latest deaths bring the total killed in Gaza since Sunday to 15, at least nine of them militants, according to Palestinian officials.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to immediately stop its strikes, warning the operation would drag the region into instability.

Abbas said a truce was needed to "spare the innocent from mass destruction."

The two sides have been trading fire over Gaza's border with southern Israel as tensions spiral upward in the region.

The Israeli military has already called up several hundred reservists and is planning to recruit many more to strengthen its positions around Gaza "with a view to possible ground maneuvers," Lerner said Tuesday.

During the last offensive on Gaza in November 2012, 30,000 reservists were called up.

Long-range threat

Lerner said that Israel is prepared for the possible threat of long-range rocket fire.

Hamas is estimated to have 10,000 rockets of varying ranges, he said, including some that can reach as far as north as Tel Aviv and beyond.

"They have substantial armaments which can strike the soft underbelly of Israel," Lerner said.

Israel says the aim of its offensive is to strike Hamas in Gaza and stop rocket fire into Israel that threatens civilians.

"It's an unacceptable situation," Lerner said. "We're not willing just to let it go by, and we have to operate in order to protect them."

He said at an earlier news briefing that the Israel Defense Forces' position had changed from focusing on deescalation to preparing for a deterioration of the situation.

'Red lines' crossed

The conflict between the two sides has worsened in the past few days.

"The enemy has crossed the red lines and will be made to pay the price for its crimes," Mushir Al-Masri, a Hamas leadership figure and member of the Palestinian parliament, wrote on his Facebook page Monday. "The blood of our martyrs is precious ... and is fuel for the intifada and the resistance."

After that statement, the barrage of rockets from Gaza into Israel increased, with Hamas claiming responsibility.

Political strains

The conflict is creating strains within the governing coalition of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, said in a news conference Monday that he told Netanyahu of his intention to dissolve his party's joint faction with Netanyahu's Likud party, saying it was "not working."

Lieberman criticized Netanyahu's handling of Gaza.

Tensions are also increasing between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Killings of teenagers

The Gaza situation has deteriorated amid anger over the kidnappings and killings of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers.

The bodies of three Israeli teenagers, who had been missing for nearly three weeks, were found last week in a field in the West Bank. The Israeli government blamed Hamas for their deaths. The militant group had praised the kidnappings but denied it was responsible.

Two days after the Israelis' bodies were discovered, a Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khedair, was abducted near his home in east Jerusalem. His charred body was later found in a forest.

Israeli police have said there is a "strong indication" the Palestinian teenager's killers may have been motivated by a desire for revenge.

Suspects questioned

His death, condemned by leaders from both sides, sparked clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli security forces in several areas of Jerusalem.

Police have questioned six suspects about what they did "before and during the murder" of Abu Khedair, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Monday.

Israeli authorities announced over the weekend that a taxi driver had confessed to killing an Israeli Jewish teen in May. Shelly Dadon, 19, was kidnapped, stabbed to death and left in an abandoned parking lot. The suspect's motivation was believed to be Palestinian nationalism, police said.

CNN's Diana Magnay reported from Jerusalem, and Ed Payne wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Kareem Khadder, Ben Wedeman and Jethro Mullen contributed to this report. 

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