Israel bolsters forces along Gaza border as rocket fire intensifies

The Israeli military bolstered forces along the volatile border with the Gaza Strip on Thursday in response to intensifying rocket fire as tensions remained high over the deaths of three Israeli teenagers and an Arab youth who Palestinians allege was killed in a revenge attack.

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military bolstered forces along the volatile border with the Gaza Strip on Thursday in response to intensifying rocket fire as tensions remained high over the deaths of three Israeli teenagers and an Arab youth who Palestinians allege was killed in a revenge attack.

In one location, soldiers ran across a field in a training exercise. At a nearby base, soldiers arrived on a bus and unloaded their equipment. The troop movement was “defensive” but Israel remained prepared for any additional violence from the Palestinian territory, military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said.

“Everything we are doing is to de-escalate the situation but on the other hand be prepared for actions that can develop if they do not de-escalate,” Lerner said.

Israeli defence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under military guidelines, said the deployment included tanks, artillery and ground forces. Israel’s last major operation in Gaza, a territory controlled by the Hamas militant group, took place in late 2012.

In Gaza, two senior Hamas officials said the group has “no interest” in any kind of escalation and hoped the cease-fire that ended the 2012 fighting could be restored. But they warned that rocket fire would continue until Israel halts its attacks on Gaza.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing ongoing diplomatic efforts, said they had sent messages to Israel through outside mediators but had been rebuffed.

“Israel has been attacking Gaza since the kidnapping of the teens,” one official said. “Once Israel stops attacking Gaza, we are willing to immediately preserve the truce.”

Israel has accused Hamas of being behind those deaths, and arrested hundreds of Hamas operatives in the West Bank as part of a broad manhunt in the largest ground operation in the West Bank in nearly a decade. Hamas praised the abduction of the teens but has denied responsibility.

In east Jerusalem, meanwhile, clashes resumed as several dozen masked Palestinian youths stood behind a large garbage bin and hurled stones and firebombs toward Israeli security forces. Police responded with stun grenades and tear gas, but largely kept their distance. No injuries were reported.

The violence erupted Wednesday after a 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was abducted and a charred body — believed to be the boy — was found in a Jerusalem forest.

The family has blamed extremist Jews for killing him in revenge for the deaths of the three Israeli teens, whose bodies were found in a field in the West Bank on Monday after a more than two-week search.

The suspected revenge killing ignited heavy clashes Wednesday in east Jerusalem between rock-throwing Palestinians and Israeli forces. The rioters set tires ablaze and torched three light-rail train shelters, leaving city streets covered in stones and debris.

Police were still trying to officially identify the body at a forensics lab, and an investigation into the killing continued. But Abu Khdeir’s family set up a mourning tent near a mosque in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Shuafat. Some 100 people crowded into the tent, including the grand mufti of Jerusalem, the area’s top Muslim cleric, to pay their condolences.

Abu Khdeir’s family distributed freshly printed posters mourning his death. The posters showed his child-like face and described him as a “brave martyr.” Relatives said they were preparing a funeral but still waiting to receive his body.

Standing alongside the mufti, the teen’s father, Hussein Abu Khdeir, angrily compared his son to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

“This crime is like how the Germans burned the Jews. And today, the Jews are burning us,” he said. “They are now like the Nazis, the new Nazis.”

The attack has elicited international condemnation and prompted calls for calm from Israeli leaders.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded a swift probe of the “reprehensible murder.”

The Israeli troop mobilization near Gaza came as near-daily rocket fire from the area has intensified in the weeks since the Israeli teens disappeared on June 12.

More than a dozen barrages late Wednesday struck two homes and knocked out electricity in the southern border town of Sderot but caused no injuries. Israel said it responded with overnight airstrikes on 15 Hamas targets. Ashraf al-Kidra, a Palestinian medical official, said 10 civilians were wounded.

Two more rockets fell Thursday, one of them striking an industrial area in southern Israel.

In all, militants have fired nearly 130 rockets at Israel since the June 12 abductions, with the most intense barrage of 30 launches coming in the last 24 hours, the army said. It has responded with airstrikes on some 70 targets in Gaza.

Two Palestinian militants died in an airstrike last week, and a young Palestinian girl was killed by an errant rocket attack. The Israelis have not suffered any serious casualties.

The Israeli military spokesman said security co-ordination between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ forces in the West Bank was continuing in order to “limit points of friction” ahead of the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is expected to be tense because of the developments. Thousands of Palestinians normally enter Jerusalem to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Hamas seized Gaza in 2007 from forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas recently formed a unity government backed by Hamas meant to end the seven-year rift, but Hamas, which possesses thousands of rockets, remains in firm control of the coastal strip.

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