GAZA CITY, Palestine: Israel called up reserve troops Monday for a possible escalation of hostilities with Palestinians in Gaza where Hamas said six of its fighters were killed by airstrikes, something Israel denied.
Hamas vowed revenge for what it said were the deadliest attacks in a surge of violence since the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli youths and a Palestinian teen.
Palestinian militants kept up their now-daily rocket launchings into Israel as pressure mounted from hard-liners in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition for tougher action against Hamas, the dominant force in the Gaza enclave.
The Israeli military said its aircraft had targeted “terror sites and concealed rocket launchers” in the enclave, but had not hit the southern Gaza area of Rafah, on the Egyptian border, where the Hamas gunmen died.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said the militants had died when explosives went off in a smuggling tunnel that Israel had bombed several days ago. The Hamas fighters had apparently gone there to inspect the damage, he said.
Lerner said the rocket fire at Israel from Gaza by Hamas fighters meant that “now the Israeli military is talking about preparedness for an escalation.” It had called up several hundred reservists and was prepared to mobilize a total of 1,500, he said.
Israel said about a dozen rockets and mortar bombs were fired from Gaza Monday, wounding one soldier.
Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have risen over the killing of three Jewish teenagers in the occupied West Bank which Israel has blamed on Hamas, and of a 16-year-old Palestinian in East Jerusalem.
Three of six suspects arrested Sunday confessed to the crime Monday and were re-enacting the incident, in which Mohammad Abu Khudair was burned alive, a day after Naftali Fraenkel and Gil-Ad Shaer, both 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, were buried, for authorities, an official said.
The three Jewish seminary students went missing while hitchhiking June 12. Hamas has neither confirmed nor denied having any role in their disappearance. Hamas’s armed wing said six of its members were killed in the airstrikes and another was pulled from the rubble, seriously wounded. The death toll was the highest Hamas has suffered since a Gaza war in late 2012.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accused Israel of committing a “grave escalation” in violence and threatened to retaliate, saying Israel would “pay the price.”
Netanyahu has pledged “to do whatever is necessary” to restore quiet to southern Israeli communities. But he also cautioned against any rush toward wider confrontation with Hamas, whose arsenal includes long-range rockets that can reach Israel’s heartland and its business capital, Tel Aviv.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, citing a rift with Netanyahu on dealing with Hamas, said Monday his nationalist party was dissolving its merger with the prime minister’s conservative Likud but would stay in the governing coalition.
“A situation in which a terrorist group has hundreds of rockets which it can decide any moment to use is intolerable,” Lieberman told a news conference. “There have been suggestions that we wait ... but I don’t know what we’re waiting for.”
Abu Khudair’s death has touched off clashes between police and stone-throwing Arab protesters in East Jerusalem and in several Arab villages in northern and southern Israel. Police said they arrested 30 people during violence Sunday night.
Netanyahu has condemned Abu Khudair’s death and attempted to calm the public. Monday, he called Abu Khudair’s father, Hussein, to express his condolences.
“I would like to express my outrage and that of the citizens of Israel over the reprehensible murder of your son,” a statement quoted Netanyahu as saying.
“We acted immediately to apprehend the murderers. We will bring them to trial and they will be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law. We denounce all brutal behavior, the murder of your son is abhorrent and cannot be countenanced by any human being,” he said.
Hussein Abu Khudair, father of the slain boy, said he was not certain he spoke to Netanyahu.
“Maybe he called, I don’t know,” he said. “Tons of people called me this morning to apologize for what happened to my son. Some of them were crying. But I don’t know if Netanyahu was one of them,” he said.
The Gaza flare-up began in mid-June, during Israel’s search for the three teens, when Israel arrested many Hamas members across the West Bank. The Israeli military says more than 160 Gaza rockets have struck Israel since.