Israel stations 75,000 troops at border after rockets strike near major cities
JERUSALEM — Israel moved Friday to prepare for a possible ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, as the Palestinian militant group Hamas continued to lob rockets into Israel, and one of them landed near Jerusalem for the first time since 1970.
The rocket strikes outside Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel's main population centers, dramatically 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 on Jerusalem — a holy city that both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital — was viewed as a major provocation that increased the prospects of an Israeli ground invasion.
The Israeli military said it had called up 16,000 reservists by Friday morning, and a military spokesman said paratroopers and infantry soldiers were in southern Israel awaiting orders from political leaders.
Later Friday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he had authorized the call-up of additional reserve soldiers, and local news reports said the new figure was 75,000, up from the 30,000 that Barak initially approved. While Israeli officials maintained that they did not seek war, the intent to send a loud warning to Hamas was evident.
“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.
By nightfall, the Israeli military said it had closed three roads leading to Gaza, a further sign that a ground invasion might be in the works.
Among Israelis, a ground operation might be viewed as necessary to hobble the still-potent military capabilities in Gaza, the stated goal of Israel's three-day-old operation. But it is a risky proposition, particularly two months before national elections in Israel. While an air offensive that began Wednesday has won support from the public and opposition politicians, buttressing Barak 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 of 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 2008-09 operation was codenamed. By Friday night, Gaza medical officials said at least 27 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli airstrikes. Three Israelis have been killed by the rocket fire from Gaza.
Friday began with a temporary truce between Israel and 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 triggered 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 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' military wing said it had fired two Gaza-made M-75 rockets — a new projectile that the group said has a range 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' stockpiles of longer-range rockets, which the Israeli military says have been greatly bolstered over the past two years by contributions from Iran and smuggling from Libya.
Even if the rocket missed by a handful of miles, targeting Jerusalem was a surprisingly risky move that carried the potential of major backlash — not just from Israel, but from the Palestinian public and Hamas' 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,” said a spokesman for the Hamas military wing who gave his name only as Abu Obeida, the Associated Press reported.
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. 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.”
Ayalon laid blame for the bloodshed directly on Hamas, saying Israel began its offensive on Wednesday in order to halt a persistent onslaught of rockets.