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Thu Oct 30 14:20:50 SAST 2014

The latest in the Israel, Palestine clash: 16 November 2012

Sapa, AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters | 16 November, 2012 09:07

The latest news on escalating tensions between Israel and Gaza all in one place.

Massing troops and tanks near Gaza, Israel says wants no war - Reuters

Israeli tanks and troops massed outside Gaza and the military said on Friday it was calling up 16,000 reservists, signs of a possible imminent invasion of the Palestinian enclave after 48 hours of air strikes.

Israel's warplanes, drones and helicopters appeared to shift focus from suspected Palestinian rocket sites to the northern Gaza frontier, where their bombs created incursion corridors by clearing landmines or guerrilla gun nests.

The mobilisation was anything but secret and details put on social media by the Israeli military appeared to be a clear warning to the Hamas Islamists that govern Gaza to push for a truce.

"It is not our intention to go to war, and we are hopeful that this operation will not take a minute more than required," Israeli President Shimon Peres said.

Since being fought to a standstill in its 2006 war against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, Israel has been honing the training of its regular troops and could mount a land invasion of Gaza at short notice.

Public statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggest such an escalation has preliminary cabinet approval.

Among units already garrisoned outside Gaza is Israel's paratrooper brigade whose commander, Colonel Amir Baram, said last month that in planning tactics he had studied World War One skirmishes in Gaza between British forces and the Ottoman Turks.

Should his troops be ordered in, Defence Minister Ehud Barak told Channel 2 television, "they will need to go house-to-house, and then we will need the lessons of the past".

RELIEF CRISIS RISK

Among those lessons learnt has been that Gaza's impoverished population of 1.7 million is vulnerable to humanitarian crises, which could spell international controversy for Israel.

Since the last Gaza war, of 2008-2009, the army says it has assigned some of its regiments with Arabic-fluent "relief officers" to direct Palestinian civilians away from danger.

To judge from the pace of the previous offensives in Lebanon and Gaza, it could take several more days for Israel to train and equip reservists for action.

The military declined to give details on where the reservists would serve, but Israeli media said they included personnel from homefront units that sound sirens during rocket attacks from Gaza and advise the public on where to shelter.

The reservists being called up on Friday were among a total of 30,000 whose draft was authorised by the Defence Ministry.

The scale of the potential mobilisation prompted one commentator on Israel's Army Radio, who half-joked on air that so many troops would risk "falling over each other" in Gaza.

Interviewed by the station, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom was asked if Israel was preparing the military for possible flare-ups on other fronts, such as Lebanon, which the Jewish state has watched with concern given conflict in neighbouring Syria and furore over the nuclear ambitions of Hezbollah's patron Iran.

"We are taking everything into consideration," Shalom said, without elaborating.

Veteran commanders say around 30,000 troops altogether took part in the 2006 Lebanon war and 20,000 in the 2009 Gaza invasion. The number of garrisoned troops always stationed outside Gaza is a state secret.

"QUIET FOR THE SOUTH"

Yossi Peled, a recently retired cabinet minister from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party and a former army general, said Israel did not seek to topple Hamas or even to crush its outgunned guerrillas in "victory" battles.

"Quiet for the south (of Israel), that is the objective of the operation, writ big," Peled told public television, referring to years of sporadic rocket and mortar salvoes by Hamas and other Gaza factions that surged in the last two weeks.

Though at least 340 of the missiles have been fired since Wednesday's flare-up, the Israelis say they have made strategic gains by destroying, on the ground, around 20 Fajr rockets with ranges of 75 km - capable of hitting the city of Tel Aviv.

"They (Palestinians) may have a few left, but it is no longer the menace that it was," said one security official, even as Hamas and its allies managed to fire one rocket at Tel Aviv on Friday, causing no damage or casualties.

Israel's saturation air strikes - which peaked on Thursday, with a rate of one every five minutes, according to the chief military spokesman - have also razed a large number of suspected munitions factories and caches, the official said.

Another target has been fields where, the Israelis believe, Hamas and other Gaza factions positioned rocket "silos" - buried launch tubes, pointing across the border, that could be detonated remotely.

Those rockets that survived Israel's pre-emptive attacks and are fired have to get past Iron Dome, an air defence system that uses small radar-guided interceptor missiles.

Israel has four Iron Dome batteries deployed and its Defence Ministry said on Friday it had rushed forward production of a fifth so that it could be deployed as early as the weekend.

Israeli media say rocket landed outside Jerusalem, no casualties - Reuters

A rocket fired toward Jerusalem from the Gaza Strip landed outside the city, Israeli media reports said.

Hamas militants in Gaza said they fired a long-range rocket at Jerusalem.

'Bomb Tel Aviv' West Bank protesters urge Hamas Sapa-AFP

Thousands of angry Palestinians rallied across the West Bank on Friday, urging Hamas militants to "bomb Tel Aviv" as Israel pursued a relentless air campaign on the Gaza Strip.

More than 1,000 protesters gathered in central Ramallah, shouting slogans of support for Gaza's Hamas rulers and waving the Islamist movement's green flag, AFP correspondents said.

"Hamas, bomb Tel Aviv!" they chanted a day after a rocket from Gaza struck the sea just by sprawling coastal city, with a second landing on Friday in an attack claimed by militants from the ruling Islamist movement.

Protesters also held up huge pictures of top Hamas military chief Ahmed Jaabari, whose death in an Israeli air strike on Gaza City on Wednesday sparked the latest bloody escalation.

Similar scenes took place in the northern city of Nablus, where more than 3,000 people called on Hamas militants to "Bomb Tel Aviv," another correspondent said.

Hamas flags were everywhere and angry demonstrators burned an Israeli flag, chanting "Death to Israel," he said.

Another 800 people marched with Palestinian and Hamas flags through the northern city of Jenin shouting slogans of support for Gaza and calling for an end to Israel's attack on the coastal territory.

They marched towards the Jalame checkpoint where clashes broke out, with youths burning tyres and throwing stones, an AFP correspondent said.

Several hundred people also demonstrated in the southern city of Hebron, waving flags and shouting their support for Hamas.

In annexed east Jerusalem, 200 protesters gathered at the Damascus Gate by the Old City where five people were arrested for "disturbing public order," police and an AFP correspondent said.

Stone-throwing clashes also broke out in Ras al-Amud near the Mount of Olives, an AFP correspondent said.

Since Wednesday's strike, Israel has carried out hundreds of attacks on targets in Gaza. On Friday morning, two more Palestinians, including a child, were killed. That raised the overall toll to 20, with more than 240 injured, medics said.

In the same period, militants have fired around 300 rockets over the border, killing three Israelis.

Putin supports Egypt efforts to halt Gaza violence - Sapa-AFP

President Vladimir Putin told Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in a telephone call that Russia supports Egypt's efforts to halt the escalating violence in Gaza, the Kremlin said Friday.

"The Russian President said that he supports Cairo's efforts directed at normalising the situation," the statement said.

"The Russian head of state underlined the need to stop the armed confrontation and called on the sides involved in the conflict to exercise restraint and stop military actions resulting in civilian deaths," it said.

The remarks followed a visit to Gaza by Egypt's Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, who vowed to intensify Cairo's efforts to secure a ceasefire and called on the international community to take responsibility for stopping aggression.

"Egypt will not hesitate to intensify its efforts and make sacrifices to stop this aggression and achieve a lasting truce," he told reporters.

President Morsi later called Israel's air strikes on the Gaza Strip a "blatant aggression against humanity".

Putin had on Thursday called on Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinians to "exercise restraint" and avoid further violence.

However Moscow has also condemned the "disproportionate" use of force in air strikes by Israel.

UN rights chief urges pullback in Gaza - Sapa-AP

The UN’s top human rights official has denounced three days of fierce clashes between Israeli forces and Gaza militants, urging them both to pull back.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay says she is appalled that civilians are being killed, including three Israelis in their apartment and several Palestinian children, including a baby, and a pregnant woman.

Her spokesman, Rupert Colville, told reporters Friday in Geneva that Pillay condemns the indiscriminate firing of rockets from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel and is extremely concerned by the sharp increase in aerial attacks by Israeli forces on the heavily populated Gaza Strip.

With rockets from the Gaza Strip targeting Tel Aviv, Colville said Pillay “urges both sides to pull back from an increasingly dangerous confrontation.”

Iran protests condemn Israel offensive - Sapa AFP

Demonstrations against Israel's military action in Gaza and in support of Palestinians took place in Tehran and 700 other Iranian cities after Friday Muslim prayers, news agency ISNA said.

Protesters chanted "death to America" and "death to Israel" in the capital, in demonstrations called for by the authorities.

"One must salute the Palestinians' popular resistance and the response they have given to the Zionist regime (by firing rockets into Israel)," Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said at the weekly prayers in Tehran, IRNA news agency said.

"Your method is good and you can bring the Zionist regime to its knees," he added.

Iran urged the United Nations and European Union on Thursday to stop Israel's "barbaric" offensive against armed Palestinian groups in Gaza, calling the operation "organised terrorism."

"Immediate and serious action by international (organisations) is needed to end the military campaign against the people of Gaza," Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in a statement.

Iran does not recognise arch-enemy Israel, and supports hardline Palestinian movements such as Hamas in the face of what it calls the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Rocket fired at Tel Aviv landed in the sea: police spokesman - Reuters

A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip towards Tel Aviv on Friday landed in the sea, a police spokesman said.

"The rocket landed off the shores of Tel Aviv," the spokesman said after air raid sirens sounded in Israel's commercial centre and an explosion was heard.

Gaza rockets 'very significant development': Hezbollah - Sapa-AFP

Palestinian militants firing long-range rockets from Gaza into Israel represents a "very significant development" in the conflict with the Jewish state, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has said.

"The firing of Fajr 5 rockets on Tel Aviv today shows the maturation, the wisdom and strength, and the courage of the Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip," Nasrallah said in a speech on Thursday night.

"The Israeli enemy was surprised and forced to acknowledge that its capital had been hit," said the leader of Lebanon's most powerful military force, adding that the Iranian-made rockets have a range of 70 kilometres (44 miles)

Gaza militants defied a major Israeli bombing campaign on Thursday, firing off volleys of rockets, one of which hit the sea near Tel Aviv, the farthest distance ever attained by fire from Gaza.

This was the first time rockets had been fired at Tel Aviv since the 1991 Gulf War, when the city was hit by Iraqi Scud missiles.

"This is a very significant development in the history of the conflict between the resistance and the Israeli enemy," Nasrallah said.

The Shiite movement Hezbollah is an ally of the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which has long provided it support.

But Nasrallah called on Arab leaders, many of demanding Assad step down, to "put aside their differences on the Syrian issue and make every effort to deter, prevent and stop the aggression on the Gaza Strip and protect the people of Gaza."

The only thing that can change the equation, is for the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation "to take a genuine stand" and use oil as a weapon to push the United States to pressure its ally Israel.

"We are all concerned in Lebanon to do everything in our power to help the situation," he concluded.

"This is not Gaza's battle to fight alone, but belongs to all of us."

In 2006, Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating war after Hezbollah militia captured four soldiers in a cross-border raid. More than 1,200 people died in Lebanon, most of them civilians, and more than 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Israeli continued its offensive in Gaza on Friday for the third day.

The escalating conflict, which has so far killed 20 Palestinians and three Israelis, has drawn expressions of deep concern internationally and sparked anger in the Arab and Muslim world.

UN rights boss urges Hamas, Israel to step back from brink - Reuters

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay denounced Israel's aerial attacks on the Gaza Strip as well as rockets fired by Hamas militants into southern Israel and called on both sides on Friday to step back from the brink.

"She's appalled that once again civilians are losing their lives... She urges both sides to pull back from an increasingly dangerous confrontation," her spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing in Geneva.

Two rockets fired from the Gaza Strip targeted Tel Aviv on Thursday in the first attack on Israel's commercial capital in 20 years, raising the stakes in a showdown between Israel and the Palestinians that is moving towards all-out war.

More than 20 people have been killed in the last few days, including seven children. Three Israeli civilians were killed in their home and several Palestinian children have also been killed, a baby among them, Colville said.

"The High Commissioner has repeatedly and unequivocally condemned the indiscriminate firing of rockets from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel and is deeply concerned by the recent major upsurge in the number of rocket attacks and that they are now being aimed at a major city such as Tel Aviv," he said.

"She is also extremely concerned by the sharp increase in aerial attacks by Israeli forces on the heavily populated Gaza Strip in the past two days," he said.

Israel authorities and the defacto authorities in Gaza have an obligation under international law to protect civilians, Colville said.

Egypt feelers open tiny window to Gaza truce - Reuters

Egypt opened a tiny window to emergency peace diplomacy in Gaza on Friday, but hopes for even a brief ceasefire while its prime minister was inside the bombarded enclave to talk to leaders of the Islamist Hamas movement were immediately dashed.

Prime Minister Hisham Kandil visited the Gaza Strip on Friday officially to show solidarity with the Palestinian people after two days of relentless attacks by Israeli warplanes determined to end militant rocket fire at Israel.

But a Palestinian official close to Egypt's mediators told Reuters that Kandil's visit, which included members of Cairo's secret service, "was the beginning of a process to explore the possibility of reaching a truce. It is early to speak of any details or of how things will evolve".

Israel undertook to cease fire during the visit if Hamas did too. But it said rockets fired from Gaza had hit several sites in southern Israel as he was in the enclave.

According to a Hamas source, the Israeli air force launched an attack on the house of Hamas's commander for southern Gaza which resulted in the death of two civilians, one a child.

But Israel's military strongly denied carrying out any attacks from the time Kandil entered Gaza, and accused Hamas of violating the three-hour deal. "Israel has not attacked in Gaza for the past two hours," a spokesman said.

"Even though about 50 rockets have fallen in Israel over the past two hours, we chose not to attack in Gaza due to the visit of the Egyptian prime minister. Hamas is lying and reporting otherwise," the army said in a Twitter message.

Kandil said: "Egypt will spare no effort ... to stop the aggression and to achieve a truce."

At a Gaza hospital he saw the bloodied body of a child. He left the Gaza Strip after meeting with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, the enclave's prime minister.

Palestinian medics said two people were killed in the disputed explosion at the house, one of them a child. It raised the Palestinian death toll since Wednesday to 21. Three Israelis were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

Air raid sirens wailed over Tel Aviv on Thursday evening, sending residents rushing for shelter and two long-range rockets exploded just south of the metropolis. The location of the impacts was not disclosed.

They exploded harmlessly, police said. But they have shaken the 40 percent of Israelis who, until now, lived in safety beyond range of the southern rocket zone.

"Even Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu was rushed into a reinforced room," said cabinet minister Gilad Eldan.

Israel has started drafting 16,000 reserve troops, in what could be a precursor to invasion.

The 21 Palestinian dead include eight militants and 13 civilians, among them seven children and a pregnant woman. A Hamas rocket killed three Israeli civilians a town north of Gaza, men and women in their 30s.

The last Gaza war, a lopsided three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-2009 aimed at ending repeated rocket attacks, left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead, mostly civilian, and killed 13 Israelis.

THE MESSAGE

"If Hamas says it understands the message and commits to a long ceasefire, via the Egyptians or anyone else, this is what we want. We want quiet in the south and a stronger deterrence," Israeli vice prime minister Moshe Yaalon said.

"The Egyptians have been a pipeline for passing messages. Hamas always turns (to them) to request a ceasefire. We are in contact with the Egyptian defence ministry. And it could be a channel in which a ceasefire is reached," he told Israeli radio.

At the same time, there were signs of possible preparations for a ground assault on Gaza. In pre-dawn strikes, warplanes bombed open land along the border zone with Israel, in what could be a softening-up stage to clear the way for tanks.

Self-propelled heavy artillery was seen near the border.

The United States has asked countries that have contact with Hamas to urge the Islamist movement to stop its recent rocket attacks from Gaza, a White House adviser said.

"We've ... urged those that have a degree of influence with Hamas, such as Turkey and Egypt and some of our European partners, to use that influence to urge Hamas to de-escalate," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said in a conference call with reporters.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview with Voice of America: "I understand the reasons Israel is doing what they're doing. They've been the target of missiles coming in from Gaza ... ."

EGYPT ON THE SPOT

The Gaza conflagration has stoked the flames of a Middle East ablaze with two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to engulf the whole region.

Hamas refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist. By contrast, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in the nearby West Bank, does recognise Israel, but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Abbas's supporters say they will push ahead with their plan to become an "observer state" rather than a mere "entity" at the United Nations later this month.

Despite fierce opposition from both Israel and the United States, they look certain to win the vote in the General Assembly, where they have a built a majority of supporters.

Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohamed Mursi, viewed by Hamas as a protector, led a chorus of denunciation of the Israeli strikes by allies of the Palestinians.

Mursi faces domestic pressure to act tough. But Egypt gets $1.3 billion a year in U.S. military aid and looks to Washington for help with its ailing economy, constraining Mursi despite his need to show Egyptians that his policies differ from those of his U.S.-backed predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on Thursday urged Egypt to do more to help the Palestinians.

"We call upon the brothers in Egypt to take the measures that will deter this enemy," the Hamas prime minister said.

The appeal poses a test of Mursi's commitment to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which the West views as the bedrock of Middle East peace.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which brought Mursi to power in an election after the downfall of pro-Western Hosni Mubarak, has called for a "Day of Rage" in Arab capitals on Friday. The Brotherhood is seen as the spiritual mentor of Hamas.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said they had targeted over 450 "terror activity sites" in the Gaza Strip since Operation Pillar of Defence began with the assassination of Hamas' top military commander on Wednesday by an Israeli missile.

Some 150 medium range rocket launching sites and ammunition dumps were targeted overnight, the IDF said.

"The sites that were targeted were positively identified by precise intelligence over the course of months," it said. "The Gaza strip has been turned into a frontal base for Iran, forcing Israeli citizens to live under unbearable circumstances."

Israeli bombing has not yet reached the saturation level seen before it last invaded Gaza in the first days of 2009, when armoured bulldozers and tanks flattened whole districts of the crowded enclave to make way for fire bases and open routes for infantry.

Palestinian death toll in Gaza climbs to 20 Sapa-dap

A teenager was killed in the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip Friday, bringing to the number of Palestinians killed in the past three days, a Palestinian official said.

Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qedra said the 19-year-old was killed in an airstrike.

Palestinian death toll in Gaza climbs to 20 - Sapa-dpa

A teenager was killed in the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip Friday, bringing to the number of Palestinians killed in the past three days, a Palestinian official said.

Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qedra said the 19-year-old was killed in an airstrike.

Israel’s military denies it attacked Gaza during Egyptian PM’s visit - Reuters

Israel’s military denied on Friday that it had carried out attacks in the Gaza Strip during a visit to the enclave by Egypt’s prime minister.

The Islamist Hamas group said Israel launched air strikes, killing two people, during the visit by Egypt’s Hisham Kandil.

The Israeli military said it had not carried out any attacks after he arrived in the enclave.

Israel had announced it would suspend military operations in Gaza during Kandil’s three-hour visit so long as Hamas also halted all fire.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said about 50 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza while Kandil was in the Palestinian territory. Israeli broadcasts showed damage from one rocket that struck the southern city of Ashkelon.

“Hamas does not respect the Egyptian prime minister’s visit to Gaza and violates the temporary ceasefire that Israel agreed to during the visit,” Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote on Twitter.

EU’s Ashton “deeply concerned” at violence in Israel and Gaza - Reuters

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Friday she was deeply concerned at violence in Israel and Gaza, calling for rocket attacks by Hamas to end and urging Israel to ensure its response was proportionate.

“I am deeply concerned at the escalating violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip and deplore the loss of civilian lives on both sides,” Ashton said in a statement.

“The rocket attacks by Hamas and other factions in Gaza which began this current crisis are totally unacceptable for any government and must stop,” she said.

“Israel has the right to protect its population from these kinds of attacks. I urge Israel to ensure that its response is proportionate,” she said.

Ashton said she had spoken about the situation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Egyptian president’s office, as well as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

She said she hoped a visit by Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil to Gaza on Friday would help to calm the situation.

Egypt’s PM in Gaza denounces Israel’s attacks as “aggression” - Reuters

Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, on a brief visit to the Gaza Strip on Friday, denounced Israel’s attacks on the Palestinian territory and said Cairo would try to secure a ceasefire.

“Egypt will spare no effort ... to stop the aggression and to achieve a truce,” Kandil said during a visit to a Gaza hospital.

Fighting continued along the Israel-Gaza border during Kandil’s three-hour visit.

Israel had announced it would hold its fire while Kandil was in the enclave on condition that Hamas militants did the same.

It resumed air strikes after volleys of rockets were fired at southern Israel.

Egypt, now led by an Islamist government seen as ideologically close to Hamas, has brokered previous informal truces between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Kandil said Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, sought the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. 

Israel strikes kill 2 in Gaza as Egypt PM visits - Sapa-AFP

Israeli war planes bombed northern Gaza on Friday morning, killing two as Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil paid a visit, Palestinian security sources and medics told AFP.

“The occupation’s planes bombed a group of citizens in the Nazila area” in northern Gaza, the source said, shortly after Israel accused Hamas of failing to observe a ceasefire during the Egyptian premier’s visit.

Fire continues during Egypt PM visit to Gaza, despite ceasefire - Reuters

Rockets fired from Gaza hit several sites in southern Israel on Friday shortly after Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil arrived in the Palestinian enclave.

The Israeli air force responded with an attack on the house of Hamas’s commander for southern Gaza, a Hamas source said.

Israel had announced it would suspend military operations in Gaza during Kandil’s three-hour visit so long as Hamas also halted all fire.

“Hamas does not respect the Egyptian prime minister’s visit to Gaza and violates the temporary ceasefire that Israel agreed to during the visit,” Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote on Twitter.

Egyptian prime minister arrives in Gaza: official - Reuters

Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil arrived in the Gaza Strip on Friday to show solidarity with the Palestinian people following a two-day Israeli military offensive in the enclave, an Egyptian official said.

Israel’s military begins calling up 16 000 reservists - Reuters

Israel has started drafting 16000 reserve troops, the military said on Friday, in a sign that violence could escalate further with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s two-day assault on Gaza has largely been from the air, but officials have said a ground incursion could be necessary to stem rocket fire into southern Israel.

Israel’s army would be heavily dependent on reservists to fight any prolonged war. The military has received a green light to call in up to 30 000 reserve troops.

The Israeli air strikes have so far killed 19 Palestinians, including seven militants and 12 civilians, among them six children and a pregnant woman. A Hamas rocket killed three Israelis in the town of Kiryat Malachi on Thursday morning.

Israel to hold fire during Egyptian PM visit to Gaza - Reuters

Israel will suspend military action in the Gaza Strip during a short visit to the Palestinian territory by Egypt’s prime minister, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

In an unprecedented display of solidarity with Hamas militants embroiled in a conflict that risks spiralling into all-out war, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil will spend three hours in the enclave.

Sources said he would explore the possibility of brokering a ceasefire amid news that Israel was calling up thousands of reservists ahead of a possible ground invasion.

Netanyahu agreed to an Egyptian request to 'cease all offensive operations' during the visit, a senior government official said, on the condition Hamas held its fire.

On Thursday evening, two rockets from Gaza crashed near Tel Aviv in the first such attack on Israel's commercial capital in 20 years. One fell into the Mediterranean Sea and the other in an uninhabited part of one of a suburb south of the city.

Two days of Israeli air strikes have killed 19 Palestinians, including seven militants and 12 civilians, among them six children and a pregnant woman. A Hamas rocket killed three Israelis in the town of Kiryat Malachi on Thursday morning.

The latest upsurge in the long-running conflict came on Wednesday when Israel killed Hamas’ military mastermind, Ahmed Al-Jaabari, in a precision air strike on his car. Israel then began shelling the coastal enclave from land, air and sea.

Israel says its offensive responded to increasing missile salvoes from Gaza. Its bombing has not yet reached the saturation level seen before it last invaded Gaza in 2008, but Israeli officials have said a ground assault remains possible.

The Gaza conflagration has stoked the flames of a Middle East ablaze with two years of Arab popular revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to spread farther afield.

Israeli warplanes bombed targets in and around Gaza City, rattling tall buildings. In a hint of escalation, the spokesman for Israel's military said it had received the green light to call in up to 30000 reserve troops.

Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohamed Mursi, viewed by Hamas as a protector, led a chorus of denunciation of the Israeli strikes by allies of the Palestinians.

Mursi faces domestic pressure to act tough. But Egypt gets $1,3 billion a year in US military aid and looks to Washington for help with its ailing economy, constraining Mursi despite his need to show Egyptians that his policies differ from those of his US-backed predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

Tel Aviv targeted

Air raid sirens sent residents running for shelter in Tel Aviv, a Mediterranean city that has not been hit by a rocket since the 1991 Gulf War, when it was targeted by Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

The Tel Aviv metropolitan area is home to more than 3 million people, more than 40% of Israel’s population.

"This escalation will exact a price that the other side will have to pay," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a television broadcast shortly after the strike.

But an Israeli Cabinet statement on Wednesday spoke only of “ improving” national security — acknowledgement that the Jewish state had no illusions about crushing the militants once and for all.

Speaking at the same time in Gaza, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh urged Egypt to do more to help the Palestinians.

"We call upon the brothers in Egypt to take the measures that will deter this enemy," the Hamas prime minister said.

The resurgent conflict will be the biggest test yet of Mursi’s commitment to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which the West views as the bedrock of Middle East peace.

Cairo recalled its ambassador from Israel on Wednesday.

Israel's ambassador left Cairo on what was called a routine home visit. Israel said its embassy would remain open.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which brought Mursi to power in an election after the downfall of Mubarak, has called for a "Day of Rage" in Arab capitals on Friday. The Brotherhood is seen as the spiritual mentor of Hamas. 

The Israeli army said 450 targets have been hit in Gaza, including 150 militant rocket launchers in the past night alone.

It said more than 300 rockets had struck Israel since the start of the operation, with its Iron Dome interceptor system shooting down more than 130 rockets bound for residential areas.

Expecting days or more of fighting and almost inevitable civilian casualties, Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets in Gaza advising residents to stay away from Hamas and other militants.

Diplomatic efforts

UN diplomats said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would head to Israel and Egypt next week to try to mediate a ceasefire, although they gave no further details.

The United States has asked countries that have contact with Hamas to urge the Islamist movement to stop its recent rocket attacks from Gaza, a White House adviser said.

"We've ... urged those that have a degree of influence with Hamas, such as Turkey and Egypt and some of our European partners, to use that influence to urge Hamas to de-escalate," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said in a conference call with reporters.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview with Voice of America: "I understand the reasons Israel is doing what they're doing. They've been the target of missiles coming in from Gaza ..."

He added, "Our hope is that in striking back that they can minimize the civilian deaths that are likely to occur."

French President Francois Hollande began talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other world leaders in an attempt to avert an escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Jean-Francois Ayrault said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke to Netanyahu too, saying Hamas bore the principal responsibility for the crisis.

Israel's sworn enemy Iran, which supports and arms Hamas, condemned the Israeli offensive as "organised terrorism."

Lebanon's Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah, which has its own rockets aimed at the Jewish state, denounced strikes on Gaza as "criminal aggression," but held its fire.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation condemned Israel's action.

Palestinians repeat call for UN action on Israeli strikes - Reuters

The Palestinian Authority renewed its call on Thursday for the UN Security Council to take action to stop Israel’s attacks against the Gaza Strip, a day after the 15-nation body held an inconclusive emergency meeting on the escalating conflict.

“The mobilization of Israeli occupying forces on the ground, including the amassing of tanks, armored vehicles and buses near the Gaza border are cause for serious concern and demand the attention of the international community,” the Palestinian U.N.observer, Riyad Mansour, wrote to the U.N. Security Council.

“We thus reiterate our urgent appeal to the Security Council... to uphold its (U.N.) Charter duties and to act now to protect the Palestinian civilian population under Israel's occupation in accordance with international humanitarian law,” he wrote to Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, president of the Security Council this month.

Israel launched a major offensive against Palestinian Hamas militants in Gaza on Wednesday, killing Hamas' military commander in an air strike and threatening an invasion of the enclave that the Islamist group said would "open the gates of hell."  

Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor called on Wednesday for international condemnation of the "indiscriminate rocket fire against Israeli citizens, children, women," referring to recent escalating Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza.

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting late on Wednesday to discuss Israel's strikes against Gaza, b ut took no action, as Israel threatened a wider offensive in the Palestinian enclave to stem rocket salvoes by Hamas militants.

Puri told reporters after Wednesday's meeting that the council would convene again on the Gaza crisis if necessary.

Mansour said in his letter to Puri that Israel's attacks on Gaza were "a grave breach of all norms of international law."

Hamas, not the Palestinian Authority, controls Gaza.

U.N diplomats said earlier on Thursday that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would visit Israel and Egypt next week to help mediate an end to the conflict.

The Security Council's failure to take any action on Wednesday was not a surprise. It is generally deadlocked on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which U.N. diplomats say is due to the US determination to protect Israel.

The fighting escalated on Thursday. Two rockets from Gaza crashed near Tel Aviv in the first such attack on Israel's commercial capital in 20 years. One fell into the Mediterranean Sea and the other in an uninhabited part of one of the Tel Aviv suburbs south of the city.

Two days of Israeli air strikes have killed 19 Palestinians - seven militants and 12 civilians - including six children and a pregnant woman. A Hamas rocket killed three Israelis in the town of Kiryat Malachi on Thursday morning.

Gaza strikes expose new global devide - Sapa-AFP

Israel was condemned Thursday by much of the Arab world while securing Western backing and pressing its biggest air assault on Gaza for years amid a wave of Palestinian short-range rocket fire.

Iran and Egypt - its new Islamist leaders under pressure to build closer ties with the Palestinians at the cost of a 30-year peace deal with the Jewish state - led the angry protests against strikes that left at least 19 dead.

"The Israelis must understand that we do not accept this aggression, which can only lead to instability in the region," Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi said in televised remarks.

'Organised terrorism'

Iran - accused by Israel of being the Gaza militants' main supplier of rocket power - branded the Israeli strikes as "organised terrorism" conducted by "criminal... Zionist (Israeli) military forces".

Tehran called on the United Nations and the European Union to halt the "barbaric" offensive against the Gaza Strip.

"Immediate and serious action by international (organisations) is needed to end the military campaign against the people of Gaza," Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in a statement carried by the official IRNA news agency.

The call was made in separate letters to UN chief Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, IRNA reported.

And the increasingly influential Arabian Peninsula state of Qatar warned starkly that the "vicious attack (on Gaza) must not pass unpunished" and demanded urgent action at the United Nations.

An emergency UN meeting concluded Wednesday without a decision and clear signals of concern over the first escalation of Middle East violence since the 2011 Arab Spring altered the political map of the historically volatile region.

The United States called Thursday on Egypt, Turkey and European powers to press Hamas to end bloodshed in Gaza, putting the onus on the Islamist movement to end rocket attacks on Israel.

The White House said it was in close contact with Israel about its military campaign into the Hamas-controlled territory, in a conflict that officials said has killed 16 Palestinians and three Israelis.

Extreme concern

British Prime Minister David Cameron told Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu he was "extremely concerned" by violence in Gaza and urged him to do all he could to avoid civilian casualties.

French President Francois Hollande meanwhile held talks with Morsi on the phone, expressing France's "deep concern" and calling for "restraint" the president's office said.

He stressed the role Egypt could play to cut the tensions, adding: "All efforts by the international community must converge to avoid any unilateral initiative and any provocation that could worsen the situation."

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the Israeli offensive a "crime against humanity," Anatolia news agency reported, adding that he had spoken with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about ways to lower the tension in the region.

US, Russia Call for restraint

Russian President Vladimir Putin urged both Netanyahu and the Palestinians to avoid escalating the violence as Moscow worried about the fighting spreading to other regions of the volatile Arab world.

"The president of Russia called on the parties to exercise restraint and avoid the path of escalating violence, whose victims include civilians, and to do everything to return the situation to its normal course," the Kremlin said following a telephone conversation between Putin and Netanyahu.

But Moscow also criticised the "disproportionate strikes on Gaza" while calling for cooler heads.

Washington meanwhile rose to the Jewish state’s defence despite earlier signs of strains in relations between US President Barack Obama and the conservative Netanyahu.

Expressing regret for the victims on both sides of the conflict, White House spokesman Jay Carney said there was “no justification” for the violence on the part of Hamas, saying it “does nothing to help the Palestinians.” 

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement: ”W e support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties”.

The United States is also calling on Egypt to use its sway with the Palestinians to try to end the violence from Gaza, Toner said.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said it was “time to end this dangerous escalation”, adding that Paris was involved in "intense diplomatic activity to lower tensions”.

“France will do everything to avert an escalation,” he told journalists at the French embassy in Berlin where he was visiting.

The tit-for-tat attacks and prospects of a possible ground invasion of Gaza prompted Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to cut short a tour of Europe aimed at winning support for his attempts to upgrade his territory’s UN status next month.

Egyptian focus

But much of the diplomatic attention this week has focused instead on the response to the tensions by Egypt — a powerbroker in the conflict for decades whose peace deal with Israel has come under growing pressure in recent months.

Morsi has crafted a new vision for his country since assuming office in June that involves a mix of backing for traditional Arab causes and an effort to remain on cooperative terms with the West.

The new Egyptian leader said that he told Obama by telephone that he was not able to condone attacks that were killing innocent Palestinian civilians in one of the most densely-populated regions on earth.

Israel has also confirmed that Egypt was withdrawing its ambassador to the Jewish state in protest over the air raids.

“Shortly before dawn, I called President Obama and we discussed the need to put an end to this aggression and to ensure it does not happen again,” said Morsi.

“I explained Egypt’s role, Egypt’s position, that we have relations with the United States and the world, but at the same time we totally reject this aggression,” the Egyptian leader stressed.

Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil will visit the Gaza Strip on Friday, Gaza’s Hamas government said.

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