By ARON HELLER and FARES AKRAM Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned home from Washington on Tuesday, heading straight into military consultations and vowing further action after a night of heavy fire in which Israeli aircraft bombed Gaza targets and Palestinian militants fired rockets into Israel.
Netanyahu rushed back to Israel to deal with the crisis after a meeting with President Donald Trump, canceling an address to the AIPAC pro-Israel lobby group and meetings with congressional leaders. Upon his return he told the AIPAC gathering via satellite that over the past 24 hours Israel had pounded militant sites in Gaza on a scale not seen since the 2014 war with Hamas.
“I can tell you, we are prepared to do a lot more,” he said. “We will do whatever is necessary to defend our people and to defend our state.”
Schools in southern Israel were cancelled Tuesday following the violence, which threatened to escalate into a major conflict just two weeks before the Israeli elections. The fighting subsided by morning, but the situation remained tense. Israeli troops massed on the Gaza frontier and imposed restrictions on public gatherings after dozens of rockets were fired toward communities in the area, including one that struck a house in the town of Sderot.
Overnight, 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.
Netanyahu faces the difficult task of delivering a tough blow to Hamas while avoiding protracted fighting that could work against him on election day.
He has come under heavy criticism from both allies and opponents for what they say has been an ineffective policy of containing Gaza militants, with calls demanding he deliver a devastating assault on Hamas, which is dedicated to Israel’s destruction. 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 the territory, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power in 2007.
After a meeting with Trump and before leaving Washington, Netanyahu indicated the election would not deter him from acting.
“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 locally-made 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 fighting set the stage for the most serious conflict since the 2014 war. But with no fatalities reported on either side yet, and the quiet holding for the moment, it seemed possible the two sides would 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 hard, seemingly headed toward all-out-conflict. But Gaza’s Hamas leaders said the rocket fire was accidental 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.
The blockade, 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 Hamas, which 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.”
Akram reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.