Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that the idea of a cease-fire between Israeli military forces and Hamas is “not on the agenda,” despite a mediation offer from President Obama, as reports emerged that Palestinian militants may have intentionally aimed rockets at a secretive Israeli nuclear facility.
Israeli government officials pointedly declined to comment on reports that Hamas fired a barrage of homemade but long-range M75 rockets at the city of Dimona, with the specific goal of hitting Israeli nuclear weapons facilities believed to be based near the city.
“The Israeli establishment does not talk about nuclear capabilities and their existence,” Israel Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said in a telephone interview Wednesday night.
He did confirm, however, that militants are believed to have fired several rockets Wednesday from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip toward Dimona, a city of roughly 33,000 people on the edge of southern Israel’s Negev desert.
Pro-Israel advocates in Washington pounced on the development. The Israel Project on its website linked to Israeli media reports that said Hamas had claimed responsibility for the rockets and that they were trying to hit a nuclear reactor near Dimona.
Of three rockets fired on the city, two landed in open areas and a third was intercepted by the Israeli military’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system.
With its overall barrage of rockets during recent days, Col. Lerner said Hamas is attempting “to send a message that they can launch rockets anywhere in Israel.”
White House officials confirmed Thursday that President Obama called Mr. Netanyahu offering U.S. help in negotiating a cease-fire, while saying he understood the need for Israel to defend itself. The White House said the U.S. was willing to “facilitate a cessation of hostilities,” potentially along the lines of a 2012 cease-fire that the U.S. helped broker, according to The Associated Press.
Mr. Obama also raised the case of Tariq Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian-American teenager who was detained and apparently beaten by Israeli authorities. Israeli officials say they are investigating the security force’s handling of the case.
“The president expressed concern about the risk of further escalation and emphasized the need for all sides to do everything they can to protect the lives of civilians and restore calm. But he also urged both sides not to escalate the crisis,” the White House said in a statement.
In response to Israeli air force pounding of hundreds of targets in Gaza, Hamas has launched rockets deeper into the Jewish state than ever before during decades of on-again, off-again violence between the two sides, raising fears throughout the region of an escalation of fighting.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Hamas and other Gaza militants have fired more than 420 rockets toward Israel over the past three days. With seven anti-missile batteries and high-tech warning mechanisms now deployed across Israel, Israel’s Iron Dome defense system has been effective in recognizing the trajectories of incoming rockets. Those headed for major population centers are shot down, while others are allowed to fall into empty fields.
The system was deployed for the first time Thursday in Jerusalem, where two puffs of smoke appeared in the sky — apparently after intercepting two incoming rockets. As of Thursday, there were no reports of Israelis having been killed by Hamas rockets, while the Health Ministry in Gaza has reported at least 85 Palestinian deaths, including 22 on Thursday alone. Some reports have cited as many as 500 Palestinians injured as a result of the Israeli air assault.
Tensions between the two sides have mounted since the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks in April and reached a boiling point after last month’s kidnappings and killings of three Israeli teenagers in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank and the subsequent abduction and burning to death of a Palestinian teen in Jerusalem.
Sources said the Israeli government is now keenly aware that the growing number of Palestinian casualties could alter international perceptions of its offensive in Gaza.
Col. Lerner asserted that Israeli forces are “operating in a way that will minimize civilian impact and maximize damage of this terrorist organization that is trying to hold Israel hostage.”
“In this conflict, there are two parties. Only one of them cares about Palestinian civilians, and it isn’t Hamas,” he said, adding that Hamas is “using civilians as human shields, encouraging people to stand of roofs.”
At an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. While Mr. Ban condemned the “indiscriminate” rocket fire from Gaza to Israel, he said he is “also concerned at the many Palestinian deaths and injuries as a result of Israeli operations.”
But there appeared to be little progress at Thursday’s emergency meeting in New York.
Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, pulled out a cellphone during the meeting and played a recording of an air-raid siren as he described the difficult circumstances of people living within rocket range.
His Palestinian counterpart, Riyad Mansour, decried the Israeli “barrage of death, destruction and terror.”
Dismissing international calls for a quick halt to the fighting, Mr. Netanyahu told members of the Knesset — Israel’s parliament — that he is “not talking to anybody about a cease-fire right now.”
“It’s not even on the agenda,” Mr. Netanyahu said, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
The paper reported that Mr. Netanyahu also stressed that he had received understanding and support from several foreign leaders.
“French President Francois Hollande told me that I am right and even issued a statement condemning the rocket fire afterward,” the Israeli prime minster said.
The State Department also expressed sympathy for Israel’s situation.
“Really what our focus is on is using all tools at our disposal to bring an end to the rocket fire that is threatening the innocent lives of civilians in Israel,” State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said, adding that “no country should have to live under the constant threat of indiscriminate violence against innocent civilians.”
“I think it’s important context here that Hamas is a terrorist organization,” she said.
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