Observers Fear Conflict in Gaza Could Escalate

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Israel on Thursday said that 15 Palestinians had been killed, 9 of them militants, since the start of its military operation in Gaza, Pillar of Defense, a day earlier.

Three Israeli civilians were killed on Thursday when a Hamas rocket hit their home in Kiryat Malachi, about 25 km north of Gaza.

Israeli air raid sirens went off in Tel Aviv at nightfall Thursday, but the rocket that triggered them fell into the sea, an Israeli diplomat told Al-Monitor. “Confirmed:despite sirens in Tel Aviv, rockets did not land in the area,” Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson Avital Leibovich wrote on Twitter.  Israel warned, however, that a strike on Tel Aviv could trigger an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Earlier Thursday, another rocket fired from Gaza struck an open area near Rishon LeZion, a city with more than 200,000 people, Leibovich said.

The seemingly deeper reach of Hamas rockets into Israel may suggest that since the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, “the smuggling routes have flourished,” allowing Hamas to grow its stockpile of Soviet-made Katyusha rockets, Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told Al-Monitor by email Thursday. “If this is the case, the stockpile could be significant.”

Palestinians held a funeral for Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari Thursday, a day after he was targeted in an Israeli air strike. Israeli media reported that Jabari, who headed Hamas’ militant wing, the Ezzedin Qassam Brigades, had been involved in back channel talks about a long-term Hamas-Israel truce.

“Hours before Hamas strongman Ahmed Jabari was assassinated, he received the draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel, which included mechanisms for maintaining the cease-fire in the case of a flare-up between Israel and the factions in the Gaza Strip,” Haaretz’s Nir Hasson reported. “This, according to Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who helped mediate between Israel and Hamas in the deal to release Gilad Shalit.”

Witnesses posted video of the US-provided  Iron Dome missile defense system attempting to intercept Hamas rocket fire.

President Barack Obama consulted by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday.  The US and Egyptian leaders agreed on the importance of efforts to de-escalate the situation, the White House said in a read out of the call.

Egypt, amid street protests in Cairo against the Israel action, recalled its ambassador to Israel. Israel’s ambassador to Egypt had already returned to Israel before the military operation began, to avoid being expelled, Israeli media reported.

The United Nations Security Council held an emergency session behind closed doors Wednesday night at Egypt’s request. Arab League foreign ministers were due to meet on Saturday for consultations on the crisis.

The number of Palestinians injured in the military action to date was disputed, with Israeli sources saying 80 injured, and Palestinians saying 130. Among the Palestinian civilians killed was the 11 month old son of BBC producer Jihad Masharawi in Gaza, BBC colleagues said. “This was Jihad’s 11 month old son Omar who was killed in #Gaza yesterday when a shell came through the roof,” BBC Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar posted on Twitter.

The State Department voiced support for Israel’s right to defend itself, and condemned Hamas rocket fire into southern Israel. But State Department spokesman Mark Toner, in a statement Wednesday, encouraged Israel “to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.”

Western defense sources expressed concern about the potential for the conflict to rapidly escalate.

An Israeli diplomatic source, noting the relatively low death toll to date, expressed the same concern, that a mistaken strike that killed many civilians could rapidly escalate the conflict.

Separately, Hamas on Thursday permitted some 39 Italian, Norwegian, Swedish & USAID diplomats and aid workers who had been in Gaza when the conflict began to leave. “They crossed safely into Israel a few minutes ago,” the Israeli diplomat said.

–With Sophie Claudet.

(Photo: Plumes of smoke rise over Gaza during an Israeli air strike, as seen from Sderot on November 15, 2012 in Israel. Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)