Israel and Gaza exchange fire amid cease-fire talks

Israeli forces struck more than 150 targets in the Gaza strip Aug. 8-9, after militants in the Palestinian territories fired rockets and mortars into Israel. 

August 9 at 12:35 PM

 Israeli aircraft struck more than 150 targets in Gaza in response to a barrage of rockets from the Palestinian territory, its military said Thursday, marking a sharp escalation even as negotiations were taking place over a cease-fire.

Militants in the strip fired more than 180 rockets and mortars into Israel within 24 hours, the Israeli military said. Most were intercepted or fell on open ground. But at least 11 Israelis were injured after projectiles slammed into residential areas, blowing out windows and leaving cars and buildings pockmarked with shrapnel.

In the Israeli airstrikes that followed, three Palestinians were killed, including a 23-year old pregnant woman and her 18-month-old daughter, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza.

“She was killed for nothing! What was the guilt of the baby?” asked Said Khamash, a cousin of the woman’s husband, who was injured in the air strike, which left a gaping hole in the ceiling of their modest home in the Wadi al-Salqa area of central Gaza.

The Israeli military said it only struck military targets, including production sites for weapons and tunnels. Also killed was a fighter with Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.

Violence has boiled over several times in recent months, but residents of both Gaza and nearby Israeli communities said the overnight fighting reached a new level of ferocity. Rocket sirens were still sounding in Israeli neighborhoods on Wednesday evening, while strikes in Gaza continued.

Palestinians look at damage at the site of an Israeli airstrike in Al-Mughraqa on the outskirts of Gaza City, on Thursday. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

“We only slept an hour,” said Naomi Zolberg, 34, a resident of the Israeli city of Sderot who said four projectiles hit very close to her home on Wednesday evening as she was inside with two of her children. “People were freaking out. It is not normal to live like this, under the will of the other side.”

The escalation, one of the most intense exchanges of fire since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, came amid Egyptian-brokered talks in Cairo over a cease-fire between the two sides.

Some analysts suggested Hamas had turned up the violence to demonstrate its strength during negotiations, but they warned that such muscle flexing could lead to a new war even if neither side wanted a full-fledged conflict.

“As we approach a potential agreement, it’s extremely important for Hamas to deliver the message that we are not going there because we are weak,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired brigadier general and the former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Israel in turn needs to send the message that there’s a “price to pay,” he said.

The flare-up, however, will distract from finding a more lasting solution to Gaza’s long term economic problems, he said.

The 140-square-mile strip, under partial blockade by Israel for more than a decade, suffers from chronic unemployment and a lack of infrastructure and services. Other discussions in Cairo had focused on how to bring about investment, employment and return the Palestinian Authority’s control to the territory. Egypt has also only sporadically opened its border with Gaza over the past decade.

The White House has said that easing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is one of its priorities. The enclave’s misery results in instability that is a major security concern for Israel.

The United Nations representative to the peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, who has attempted to help mediate a cease-fire, said he was “deeply alarmed” by the latest events and warned that they risk turning into a “conflict that nobody wants.”

“If the current escalation, however, is not contained immediately, the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people,” he said in a statement.

As part of a cease-fire deal, Israel is insisting that Hamas stop sending incendiary kites and balloons over the border, Israeli and Palestinian officials say.

Hamas and Israel have also opened channels for indirect talks on prisoner exchanges. Those have hit a stumbling block as Hamas is insisting that the release include all prisoners who were part of a 2011 prisoner exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit but have since been rearrested, according to Palestinian officials, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the talks.

After a sleepless night for residents of Gaza and nearby Israeli communities on Wednesday, there was little respite on Thursday morning. Israeli sirens continued to blare, warning of incoming rockets, while airstrikes hit more targets in Gaza, even after Palestinian factions declared that the round of violence was “over.”

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another Gaza militant group, said they had targeted Israeli communities in response to Israel’s “aggression.”

On Tuesday, Israeli tank fire had killed two members of Hamas’ military wing. Israel said the militants had fired on Israeli troops near the border, but Hamas said the militants were taking part in a drill. Earlier on Wednesday the Israeli military said it had observed Hamas evacuating fighters from military posts, a sign of an impending operation by the group. A few hours later the rocket fire began. 

Public pressure in Israel to take more decisive military action is building. Alon Davidi, the mayor of Sderot, said it’s time for “action.”

“We have to hit the terrorists hard and bring back our routine to our own lives,” he said, addressing ministers in the security cabinet, the Times of Israel reported. “For our part, we are ready and willing to give the army and decision-makers the time and space they need to return quiet to this region.”

Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said reinforcements had been sent to the area and that the military was prepared for various “eventualities.”

But many on both sides are hoping it won’t come to another war.

“We need an end to this,” said Salwa Masry, 44, a mother of five who lives west of Gaza City. “I don’t know how, whether through reconciliation or a deal with Israel or Egypt. We need an end.”

Balousha reported from Gaza City.


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