Hamas declares Gaza emergency amid Israeli strikes

 

GAZA CITY (AFP) — The Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers have declared a state of emergency in the wake of confrontations with Israel that have left 18 people dead in the deadliest clashes since a devastating war more than two years ago.

A truce declared by Palestinian armed groups in the enclave unravelled even before it could take hold, when Israeli air strikes hit several locations across the Strip, prompting militants to fire dozens of projectiles into southern Israel, in a new wave of back and forth violence.

“The interior ministry has decreed a state of emergency. All security forces must work 24 hours a day along with the civil defence and medical services to protect and save inhabitants taken as targets by the Zionist occupier,” ministry spokesman Ihab al-Ghussein declared.

The violence, the worst since 2009, has cost the lives of 18 Palestinians since Thursday in the Gaza Strip. They included Tayssir Abu Sneneh, a head of Hamas’s armed wing the Ezzedin al-Qassam Brigades, and at least six civilians.

The Israeli army said in a statement that Sneneh was implicated “directly and physically” in the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and had recently been told to carry out “a terrorist attack from the Sinai Desert, using rockets, against the Israeli city of Eilat.”

Shalit, 24, who has French nationality, was captured in Israel in June 2006 by three armed Palestinian groups, one coming under Hamas.

The violence continued Saturday with Palestinians firing some 50 salvos of projectiles at Israel, and Israelis responding with air raids that killed four.

An Israeli raid in eastern Gaza City on Saturday evening killed a member of the An-Nasser Brigades, the military wing of the Popular Resistance Committees, and wounded two other Palestinians, a medic said.

Israeli tanks wounded another Palestinian in the strip’s north. The man has not been identified as a combatant.

On Saturday morning, an Israeli tank round killed a Palestinian and wounded a second in an eastern neighbourhood of Gaza City. Again, it remained unclear whether the casualties were civilian.

The deaths took to 18 the number of Palestinians killed, including at least six militants and a 10-year-old boy, since an anti-tank round was fired at an Israeli school bus near kibbutz Nahal Oz, close to Gaza, on Thursday.

At least 57 Palestinians were wounded, 12 seriously, medics said.

But a senior Israeli security official said the Islamist group ruling the Gaza Strip had asked for a ceasefire.

“The political branch of Hamas has sent a message asking for an Israeli ceasefire” in exchange for a halt to Palestinian attacks, the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

He said Israeli operations would continue for as long as Israel felt “its people cannot lead normal lives” because of the threat of Palestinian attack.

He also indicated that Defence Minister Ehud Barak had indefinitely postponed a trip to Washington because of the gravity of the situation.

Thursday’s attack on the school bus critically wounded a teenager and injured the driver. Israeli media Saturday cited Hamas sources as saying they were unaware that children were traveling in the bus, saying that the road was targeted because it is often used by Israeli military vehicles.

“The attack on a school bus yesterday crossed the line… Whoever tries to hurt and murder children, his blood will be on his own head,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday.

An Israeli military statement issued late Saturday night made clear that the weekend’s strikes had come in response to the bus incident, saying that “Over the past 48 hours, in response to the incident in which a children’s bus was hit with an anti-tank missile near Sa’ad on Thursday, April 7th 2011, combined Israel Air Force, Armored and Infantry forces are operating in the Gaza Strip in order to restore the calm to Israel’s southern communities.”

Israel’s retaliatory strikes have made the confrontation the deadliest since the end of Operation Cast Lead, the offensive Israel launched in December 2008 that claimed the lives of some 1,400 Palestinians — more than half civilians — and 13 Israelis, including 10 soldiers.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton condemned the rocket fire from Gaza but also urged Israel to show restraint, urging “an immediate cessation of all violence” and prompting an Israeli diplomat’s “dismay” at her “choice of words.”

Ma’an staff writers contributed to this report.

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