Israel Launches Scores of Airstrikes as Gaza Fire Persists

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JERUSALEM — Israeli warplanes struck dozens of targets in the Gaza Strip and three people were reported killed there, while Palestinian militants from the territory fired scores of rockets into Israel in a fierce burst of violence overnight and into Thursday morning.

The flare-up comes as Egypt is trying to broker a long-term cease-fire between the two sides. At least three Palestinians died — a pregnant woman, her 1-year-old daughter and a Hamas militant, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

On the Israeli side, at least seven people were wounded.

Israeli and Hamas officials both threatened a further intensification of hostilities. The U.N.’s Mideast envoy appealed for calm.

It was not clear if the escalation, the latest in a series of intense exchanges of fire in recent months, would derail the indirect negotiations between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas militant rulers.

Air raid sirens signaling incoming rocket fire continued in southern Israel on Thursday morning, raising the likelihood of further Israeli reprisals.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007. Despite the animosity, the bitter enemies appear to be working through Egyptian mediators to avoid another war.

Hamas is demanding the lifting of an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade that has devastated Gaza’s economy, while Israel wants an end to rocket fire, as well as recent border protests and launches of incendiary balloons, and the return of the remains of two dead soldiers and two live Israelis believed to be held by Hamas.

But the continued outbursts of fire have jeopardized those cease-fire efforts. On Tuesday, the Israeli military struck a Hamas military post in Gaza after it said militants fired on Israeli troops on the border. Hamas said two of its fighters were killed after taking part in a gunfire parade inside a militant camp.

The incident occurred while a group of senior Hamas leaders from abroad were visiting Gaza to discuss the ceases-fire efforts with local leaders.

A top Hamas official told The Associated Press that the group waited for the delegation to leave Gaza before responding with rocket fire late Wednesday.

The Israeli military said over 150 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel, and Israel carried out over 140 airstrikes targeting Hamas militant positions.

Gaza’s Health Ministry identified those killed in the airstrikes from Wednesday to Thursday as Hamas fighter Ali Ghandour, 23-year-old Enas Khamash and her daughter Bayan. The ministry said the militant and the civilians were killed in separate incidents.

Kamal Khamash, brother-in-law of the killed woman, said the family was asleep when the projectile hit the house.

The mother and daughter died immediately and the father is in critical condition, Kamal said.

“This is a blatant crime and Israel is responsible for it,” he said.

Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus insisted Israel only targeted Hamas military targets in Gaza.

In southern Israel, two Thai laborers were among the seven wounded by rocket fire, and rockets damaged buildings in the cities of Sderot and Ashkelon. The military said it intercepted some 25 rockets, while most of the others landed in open areas. Israel said it launched airstrikes targeting rocket launchers, weapons stockpiles, tunnels and other Hamas infrastructure.

Israeli Cabinet minister for construction and housing, Yoav Galant, said that “whatever is needed to be done to defend our civilians and soldiers, will be done, no matter what would be the price in Gaza.”

Conricus wouldn’t comment on Israeli media reports of troops preparing for a possible ground operation, but said Israel “had ground troops that are ready to deploy. We are reinforcing the southern command and Gaza division.”

Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special envoy who is involved in Egyptian efforts to broker a truce, said in a statement on Thursday that he’s “deeply alarmed” by “multiple rockets fired toward communities in southern Israel” the day before.

Mladenov warned that “if the current escalation however is not contained immediately, the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people.”

On Wednesday, the Israeli military shelled the Palestinian territory after civilians working on the Gaza border fence came under fire. Hamas militants responded with a cross-border fusillade that sent Israelis scrambling for air raid shelters.

The Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing classified negotiations, said that cease-fire talks were in their final stage but that disagreements remained. He said Hamas is demanding the complete lifting of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, while Israel has offered only to ease the restrictions.

Tension along the Israel-Gaza border has escalated since late March, when Hamas launched what would become regular mass protests along Israel’s perimeter fence with Gaza. The protests have been aimed in part at trying to break the blockade.

Over the past four months, 163 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, including at least 120 protesters, according to the Gaza Health Ministry and a local rights group. An Israeli soldier was killed by a Gaza sniper during this period.

Israel says it has been defending its sovereign border against infiltration attempts by Hamas. But it has come under heavy international criticism for its frequent use of force against unarmed protesters.

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Associated Press writers Mohammad Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Fares Akram contributed to this report.

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Israeli Parliament Passes Contentious Jewish Nation Bill

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JERUSALEM — Israel’s parliament approved a controversial piece of legislation on Thursday that defines the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people but which critics warn sidelines minorities.

The government says the bill, passed in the early morning hours, will merely enshrine into law Israel’s existing character. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called its passage a “historic moment in the history of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel.”

“Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, which honors the individual rights of all its citizens,” he said. “I repeat this is our state. The Jewish state.”

“Lately, there are people who are trying to destabilize this and therefore destabilize the foundations of our existence and our rights,” he added. “So today we have made a law in stone. This is our country. This is our language. This is our anthem and this is our flag. Long live the state of Israel.”

Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence defined its nature as a Jewish and democratic state, a delicate balance the country has grappled to maintain for 70 years.

Opponents of the new bill say it marginalizes the country’s Arab minority of around 20 percent and also downgrades Arabic language from official to “special” standing.

The law passed with a 62-55 backing, with two members of the Knesset abstaining. The legislation, defined as a “basic law,” granting it quasi-constitutional status, will likely face a challenge at the Supreme Court.

Lawmakers took turns to passionately express their views in a rowdy, hours-long debate in parliament overnight.

Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List, pulled out a black flag and waved it during his speech, warning of the implications of the law.

“This is an evil law,” he told lawmakers, adding that “a black flag hovers over it.”

“Today, I will have to tell my children, along with all the children of Palestinian Arab towns … that the state has declared that it does not want us here,” Odeh said in a statement later. “It has passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens.”

Benny Begin, son of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the founder of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, abstained from voting, warning of the party’s growing disconnect from human rights.

“This is not a decision I expected from the Likud leadership,” he said.

Eugene Kontorovich, international law director at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative Jerusalem think tank, defended the bill, arguing it “is similar to provisions in many Western democratic constitutions, which provide for an official language and national character that reflects the majority of the population.”

Kontorovich dismissed the “faux outrage” against the bill as “simply another attempt to single-out the Jewish state and hold her to a double standard.”

American Jewish organizations also expressed their disapproval of the law.

The American Jewish Committee, a group representing the Jewish Diaspora, said it was “deeply disappointed,” adding that the law “puts at risk the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic.”

Jeremy Ben Ami, president of J Street, a Washington liberal pro-Israel group, said the bill’s purpose is “to send a message to the Arab community, the LGBT community and other minorities in Israel, that they are not and never will be equal citizens.”

“Strong connection between Israel and Jews worldwide is based on these values that Israel is both a Jewish and democratic state,” Ben Ami said, adding concerns the bill would “weaken the strength of Israel’s democracy.”

Lawmakers had removed the most contentious clause of the bill on Sunday which would have allowed the establishment of “separate communities” and which critics had called racist.

Israelis, including President Reuven Rivlin and attorney general, voiced opposition to the earlier draft of the bill. Israelis opposed to the bill, deeming it discriminatory, took to the streets to protest in large numbers on Saturday in Tel Aviv.

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Kushner: Mideast Peace Plan Due Soon, With or Without Abbas

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JERUSALEM—President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser said in an interview published Sunday that the administration will soon present its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, with or without input from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In an interview published in the Arabic language Al-Quds newspaper, Jared Kushner appealed directly to Palestinians and criticized Abbas, who has shunned the Trump team over its alleged pro-Israel bias, particularly on the fate of contested Jerusalem.

The interview came out after a weeklong trip around the region by Kushner and Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt. The team met with leaders of Israel, Jordan, Qatar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to discuss the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza and the administration’s proposals for a peace deal.

The Palestinians refused to meet with Kushner, and leaders have criticized the Trump negotiating team in recent days.

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Kushner and Greenblatt on Saturday of trying to topple the Abbas-led West Bank autonomy government and dismantle the U.N. aid agency for Palestinian refugees. On Sunday, Erekat doubled down on his criticism, telling Israel’s Channel 10 that the American negotiators are “not neutral” and predicting their peace plan would fail.

Any peace plan would face major obstacles, including the increasingly dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, internal Palestinian divisions, and recent cross-border violence between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday that he met twice with Kushner and Greenblatt this weekend and discussed “how to solve the humanitarian situation in Gaza without strengthening Hamas.”

It remains unclear how the Trump administration would proceed with a peace plan without Palestinian cooperation.

Kushner said the plan is “almost done,” but offered scant details aside from the promise of economic prosperity. He made no mention of a Palestinian state arising alongside Israel, though he acknowledged that Arab partners support that goal.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and two years later, Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas’ forces. Abbas now governs only small autonomous zones in the West Bank.

Kushner cast doubt on Abbas’ ability to make a deal, alleging that the Palestinian leadership is “scared we will release our peace plan and the Palestinian people will actually like it” because it would offer them a better life.

“The global community is getting frustrated with Palestinian leadership and not seeing many actions that are constructive toward achieving peace,” Kushner said. “There are a lot of sharp statements and condemnations, but no ideas or efforts with prospects of success.”

Palestinian leaders have refused to meet with the Trump team since the president recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December. Jerusalem is an emotional issue at the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel captured the city’s eastern half, home to holy sites for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it. The annexation is not internationally recognized. Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as capital of a future state.

“If President Abbas is willing to come back to the table, we are ready to engage; if he is not, we will likely air the plan publicly,” Kushner said.

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh responded to Kushner’s interview by restating that American efforts will yield no result if they bypass the Palestinian leadership, and if they are not aimed at an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

Later in the day Israel’s military said its aircraft carried out several strikes in Gaza in response to Palestinians launching “arson and explosive balloons.”

Gaza’s Health Ministry said three people were wounded. Local media and witnesses in Gaza said the injured were members of Hamas forces.

For weeks, Israel has been struggling to combat large fires caused by kites and balloons rigged with incendiary devices launched by Palestinians in Gaza that have destroyed forests, burned crops and killed wildlife and livestock.

The military said that Hamas is now orchestrating the flying fire bomb attacks and “will bear the consequences for its actions.”

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Rights Group: Israeli Lethal Force in Gaza May Be War Crime

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JERUSALEM — Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that Israel’s use of lethal force against Palestinian demonstrators in the Gaza Strip in recent weeks may constitute war crimes.

The statement was issued Wednesday ahead of an emergency U.N. General Assembly meeting to vote on a resolution condemning Israel’s “excessive use of force.” A similar Security Council resolution was vetoed earlier this month by the United States for being “fundamentally imbalanced” and “grossly one-sided,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said.

Palestinians have held near-weekly protests since March 30, calling for a “right of return” to ancestral homes now in Israel. At least 120 Palestinians have been killed and more than 3,800 wounded by Israeli fire in protests along the border. The overwhelming majority of the dead and wounded have been unarmed, according to Gaza health officials.

The Israeli military has said its soldiers adhere to the rules of engagement to defend Israeli civilians and security infrastructure from attacks cloaked by the protests.

Human Rights Watch contended in its statement that the mostly unarmed protesters didn’t pose an imminent threat to Israeli troops or civilians, and therefore the use of live fire suggests a violation of international law. The organization said eyewitnesses recounted Palestinians were shot from a great distance from the fence, and others who “had not thrown stones or otherwise tried to harm Israeli soldiers” were shot from a closer range.

Israel has been accused of committing war crimes in its three wars in the Gaza Strip in the last decade. Last month the Palestinians urged the International Criminal Court in The Hague to launch an investigation into Israeli policies and actions in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, accusing Israel of systemic crimes.

Israel has called the Palestinian move “legally invalid.” Israel is not a member of the ICC and argues the court does not have jurisdiction.

The ICC has conducted a preliminary investigation since 2015 into alleged crimes in the Palestinian territories, including West Bank settlement construction and war crimes by Israel and Hamas in the 2014 war in Gaza.

Human Rights Watch’s Mideast director called on the international community to “impose real costs for such blatant disregard for Palestinian lives.”

“The U.N. Human Rights Council inquiry should identify and call for sanctions against officials implicated in ongoing serious human rights violations,” Sarah Leah Whitson said.

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