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Gaza Tense After Heavy Fire Overnight  03/26 06:27

   JERUSALEM (AP) -- The Gaza border region was quiet but tense on Tuesday 
morning after a night of heavy fire as Israeli aircraft bombed targets across 
the Gaza Strip and Gaza militants fired rockets into Israel in what threatened 
to escalate into a major conflict, just two weeks before the Israeli election.

   Schools in southern Israel were cancelled for the day and the military 
massed forces on the Gaza border and imposed restrictions on civilian public 
gatherings, after dozens of rockets were fired toward communities in the area, 
including one that struck a house in the town of Sderot.

   The Israeli air force pounded militant sites of Gaza's Hamas rulers and the 
smaller Islamic Jihad group. The targets included a multistory building in Gaza 
City that Israel said had served as a Hamas military intelligence headquarters 
and the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Gaza's Health Ministry said 
seven Palestinians were wounded in the airstrikes.

   Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to return from Washington later in the 
day and head directly to military headquarters in Tel Aviv for consultations on 
the next steps. He faces the difficult task of delivering a tough blow to Hamas 
while avoiding protracted fighting that could work against him on election day.

   Netanyahu has come under heavy criticism from both allies and opponents for 
what they say has been an ineffective policy of containing Gaza militants. He 
has conducted indirect cease-fire talks through Egyptian mediators in recent 
months, and even allowed the delivery of millions of dollars of Qatari aid to 
Hamas to ease harsh conditions in Gaza.

   After a meeting with President Donald Trump and before leaving Washington, 
Netanyahu indicated the election would not deter him from acting.

   "We have responded very, very forcefully. Hamas needs to know that we will 
not hesitate to go in and take all necessary steps --- regardless of anything, 
any date, other than Israel's security needs," he said.

   The cross-border fighting was triggered by a surprise rocket fired early 
Monday from Gaza that slammed into a house in central Israel and wounded seven 
people.

   The Israeli military said it was a self-manufactured rocket with a range of 
120 kilometers (75 miles), making it one of the deepest strikes ever carried 
out by Hamas. The military mobilized two armor and infantry brigades and 
drafted some reserve forces before striking back at militant sites in Gaza.

   Gaza's Hamas rulers announced later in the day that Egyptian mediators had 
brokered a cease-fire but the firing continued overnight before calm appeared 
to return early Tuesday.

   The rocket attack prompted Netanyahu to cut short a visit to Washington and 
return home, setting the stage for perhaps the most serious conflict since a 
war in 2014. But with no fatalities reported on either side yet, and the quiet 
holding for the moment, it still seemed possible to step back from the brink 
once again.

   Two weeks ago, rockets were fired from Gaza toward Israel's densely 
populated commercial capital of Tel Aviv, and the Israeli military struck back. 
Gaza's Hamas leaders said the rocket was fired accidentally and the fighting 
quickly subsided.

   Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the last decade. Although neither 
side appears to have an interest in another war, fighting could easily spin out 
of control. The 2014 conflict lasted 50 days and ended with over 2,000 
Palestinian deaths, including hundreds of civilians, and 73 killed on the 
Israeli side.

   In Gaza, Hamas is facing perhaps its toughest domestic test since seizing 
control of the coastal territory from the rival Palestinian Authority 12 years 
ago.

   An Israel-Egyptian blockade, imposed to weaken Hamas, combined with 
sanctions by the Palestinian Authority and mismanagement by the Hamas 
government, have all fueled an economic crisis that has left Gaza with an 
unemployment rate above 50 percent.

   Hamas has been leading weekly protests along the Israeli border for the past 
year in hopes of easing the blockade, but the demonstrations, in which some 190 
people have been killed by Israeli fire, have done little to improve conditions.

   Last week, hundreds of Gazans protested the dire conditions, a rare 
expression of public discontent against the authoritarian government. Hamas 
responded with a violent crackdown, beating and arresting dozens of 
demonstrators and drawing rare public criticism.

   By limiting its fire to border communities after Monday's long-range launch, 
Hamas seems to be trying to keep the conflagration on low intensity. For 
Israelis living along the border who have suffered from years of rocket attacks 
that is little comfort.

   "The Israeli government can't, under no circumstances, settle," said Haim 
Jellin, a Labor party candidate for parliament and a former head of the 
bordering Eshkol regional council. "Firing at Israeli communities that border 
with Gaza is the same as firing toward Tel Aviv, and it's impossible we will 
show restraint at the continuous firing."


(KA)

 
 
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