Netanyahu Cuts Short US Visit as Gaza Tensions Spike

Ammar Awad/Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to the United States on Monday and the military said it dispatched reinforcements to the Gaza border after a rocket attack near Tel Aviv wounded seven people.

Netanyahu threatened a forceful response to the long-range strike amid accusations from opponents in a closely contested Israeli election, two weeks away, that he had been showing weakness in the face of security challenges from Gaza militants.

Netanyahu, who arrived in Washington on Sunday for a four-day visit, said he would fly home immediately after meeting President Donald Trump at the White House, as planned, later on Monday.

“This was a heinous attack on the State of Israel and we will respond strongly,” Netanyahu said in a video statement.

“In light of the security events, I have decided to cut short my visit to the United States. In a few hours, I will meet President Trump and immediately after that I will return to Israel to direct our actions close-hand.”

The Israeli military said Hamas, the armed group that rules Gaza, fired the rocket that destroyed a house in Mishmeret, a village north of Tel Aviv.

There was no claim of responsibility for the early morning strike. The military said Hamas launched the rocket from about 120 km (75 miles) away, making it the longest-range attack from Gaza causing casualties since a 2014 war.

Israel’s Magen David Adom ambulance service said it treated seven people, including an infant, a 3-year-old boy, a 12-year-old girl and a 60-year-old woman who was suffering from blast injuries, burns and shrapnel wounds.

“It just made me feel really unsafe all of a sudden, which is a feeling I’m not used to,” said Nitzan Shifrin, a 19-year-old Mishmeret resident.

Israeli military chief spokesman Ronen Manelis said it was assigning two brigades to the Gaza area and that some reservists were being called up.

“We are prepared for a wide range of scenarios,” he said.

HIGH TENSION

The attack came at a time of high tension ahead of this weekend’s anniversary of Gaza border protests that have included Palestinian attempts to breach the frontier and often lethal Israeli fire.

Palestinians in Gaza have also frequently launched incendiary balloons towards Israeli farms and villages along the frontier – attacks that have triggered Israeli air strikes, at times against Hamas facilities abandoned in advance.

Two rockets were launched at Tel Aviv on March 14 but caused no injuries or damage. Israel blamed those launches on Hamas, though a security official later said the salvo had been set off by accident.

In Gaza, Palestinians were bracing for retaliation as Israel closed its border crossings with the territory and access to the sea. Yahya Sinwar, Gaza’s Hamas chief, canceled a planned public meeting scheduled for Monday afternoon.

The prospect of a wider confrontation with Hamas poses a dilemma for Netanyahu as the April 9 ballot nears.

Seven weeks of fighting in 2014 against Gaza militants led to heavy casualties and damage in the impoverished territory and rocket strikes against Israel that disrupted daily life.

However, recent Gaza violence has put a dent in Netanyahu’s tough-on-security image at a time when he is running neck-and-neck with centrist challenger Benny Gantz, a former armed forces chief, and facing calls for tough action from his political rivals who are competing with him for the right-wing vote.

Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, after Trump said on Thursday it was time to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, an area it captured from Syria in a 1967 war, was widely seen at home as an attempt to boost the Likud party leader’s chances for a fifth term.

Netanyahu’s election prospects have been clouded by corruption allegations against him. He has denied any wrongdoing.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in JerusalemAdditional reporting by Stephen Farrell, Maayan Lubell and Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Editing by William Maclean)

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