Israel launches Gaza strikes after rare rocket attack near Tel Aviv

WASHINGTON/GAZA: US President Donald Trump yesterday recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli territory in an election boost for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as his chief political rival sought to appear as a better alternative to lead Israel. During a White House visit by Netanyahu, Trump signed a proclamation officially granting US recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, in a dramatic shift from decades of US policy. Israel seized the strategic land from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. The recognition, which Trump had announced in a tweet last Thursday, appeared to be the most overt gesture by the Republican president to help Netanyahu, who had been pressing Trump for the move.

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump holds up a signed proclamation on the Golan Heights alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House yesterday. — AFP

Meanwhile, Israel launched strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza hours after a rocket from the Palestinian enclave hit a house near Tel Aviv and wounded seven people, leading to fears of a severe escalation. Israel began its retaliatory strikes around the same time as Netanyahu met Trump. The Israeli prime minister, who faces an election on April 9, earlier yesterday cut short his US visit after the rocket attack. He arrived in Washington on Sunday, originally for a four-day trip. In comments from the White House, Netanyahu said “Israel is responding forcefully to this wanton aggression.”

Signing the document as Netanyahu looked over his shoulder, Trump said: “This was a long time in the making.” He handed the pen that he used for his signature to Netanyahu, and said: “Give this to the people of Israel.” Netanyahu welcomed Trump’s move and said Israel has never had a better friend. He harked back to two previous Middle Eastern wars as the reason why Israel needs to hang on to the Golan. “Just as Israel stood tall in 1967, just as it stood tall in 1973, Israel stands tall today. We hold the high ground and we should never give it up,” he said.

The rocket attack near Tel Aviv in central Israel, blamed on Hamas, came as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel group, held its annual meeting in Washington with speaker after speaker expressing US support for strong ties with the country. “We stand with Israel because her cause is our cause, her values are our values, and her fight is our fight,” Vice President Mike Pence said. Pence also talked tough against Iran, saying that under Trump, “America will never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.”

Netanyahu’s strongest election challenger, Benny Gantz, appeared before the gathering yesterday, and vowed to protect his country against threats from Iran and Syria. He called for unity in Israel. “We must remember if that we want hope, we must have unity,” he said. With election day approaching, opinion polls put Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party neck and neck.

A security source in Gaza said there had so far been at least six strikes, including five in and around Gaza City and one in southern Gaza between Rafah and Khan Younis. There were so far no reports of any casualties in Gaza. Earlier yesterday, a rocket from Gaza hit a house in Israel in a rare long-distance strike. Israel’s army said the rocket was fired by Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, from the Rafah area.

A Hamas official, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, denied the group was behind the rocket, evoking the possibility it was caused by “bad weather”. The official said the same message had been passed to Egypt, which has acted as mediator between Israel and Hamas. But Israel warned of a firm response and announced it was sending two additional brigades to reinforce the Gaza area and carrying out a limited call up of reservists.

Israeli roads near the Gaza Strip were closed and farming activities in the area were halted. Israel also closed its people and goods crossings with the blockaded Gaza Strip and reduced the zone in the Mediterranean it allows for Palestinian fishermen off the enclave, a statement said. The house hit was located in the community of Mishmeret, around 20 km north of Tel Aviv, police said. The rocket would have had to travel some 120 km from Rafah to reach the area. Rocket fire from Gaza at that distance is rare.
The hospital treating the wounded said seven Israelis were injured lightly by burns and shrapnel, including three children. One of the wounded was a six-month-old child and six of them were members of the same British-Israeli family. The house was destroyed in the wake of the rocket and subsequent fire, with burnt wood, a children’s toy and other debris piled at the site.

Police spokesman Ami Ben David said air raid sirens wailed at around 5:15 am and the home’s residents made their way to a safe room, possibly saving their lives. The rocket crashed through the roof and then exploded when it hit the floor, he said. “I woke up hearing the sound of the explosion,” said neighbor Yuval Katz Lass, 18. “People were shocked and panicked.” Both Hamas and its ally in Gaza, Islamic Jihad, threatened to respond to Israeli “aggression”. – Agencies