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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

In Gaza, an Israeli strike leaves its bloody mark

The latest Israeli strikes wounded at least 18 Palestinians and flattenned a cultural centre

Palestinians inspect the damaged house hit by Israeli airstrikes that killed 23-year-old pregnant mother Enas Khammash and her 18 month-old daughter Bayan. AP Photo
Palestinians inspect the damaged house hit by Israeli airstrikes that killed 23-year-old pregnant mother Enas Khammash and her 18 month-old daughter Bayan. AP Photo

Israel and Hamas launched fresh salvos Thursday evening after a brief pause in hostilities earlier in the day, with airstrikes wounding at least 18 Palestinians and flattening a cultural centre.

It was not clear if the exchange marked the start of another escalation between the two sides or if Gazan militants would return to a ceasefire they had declared earlier in the day.

Beginning on Wednesday night and into Thursday, fireballs and explosions shook the Gaza Strip while plumes of smoke rose from the enclave. Israel launched over 150 strikes on numbers targets across the densely packed enclave. Those killed in the Gaza Strip included Enas Khammash and her 18-month-old daughter Bayan.

The ongoing exchanges come as Egypt and Qatar are leading negotiations for a lasting ceasefire. A Hamas delegation arrived in Doha over the weekend, having travelled through the Rafah Crossing with Egypt. Reuters reported Sunday that an Israeli official had also visited Doha as part of the negotiations. Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas is also in Doha for the talks.

However, after the latest fire, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his Security Cabinet Thursday evening. An Israeli official said Netanyahu had instructed the army to prepare for "every possibility."

The strike on the building in Gaza City wounded 18 Palestinians. A separate strike destroyed the Said Meshal Cultural Centre in Gaza City and destroyed other offices in the same building including one for the Egyptian community in the enclave.

The building was not publicly known to include facilities for Hamas.

Meanwhile, a rocket fired from the strip that hit an open area outside the major Israeli city of Beersheba caused no damage or injuries.

It was the first time since a 2014 war that a rocket had hit that deep inside Israel, according to Israeli media. Beersheba is some 40 kilometres from the Gaza Strip. Israeli military spokesman, Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, described it as an escalation.

Nickolay Mladenov, the UN envoy for the Middle East conflict who has been seeking to negotiate a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas, said he was "deeply alarmed".

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas called on the international community to "immediately and urgently intervene".

Early reports indicated that the talks have been focused on getting both sides to agree to a long-term cessation of hostilities under which Qatar could then finance aid and development projects in Gaza in exchange for Israel easing the crippling blockade. The UN has also reportedly played a role in brokering talks, alongside Egypt. It is unclear what state talks are at or if the latest action on the ground has jeopardized any progress.

The 23-year-old Khammash was due to give birth in a few days. Instead, she was killed by the Israeli strike, alongside Bayan, her 18-month-old daughter, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Their one storey home in Dier Albalah is little more than a breezeblock shack. As such, it crumbled when it became the end point for one of what the Israeli military said was an assault on 150 targets in the early minutes of Thursday.

"We entered the house and found the mother and her daughter were killed and the father was wounded," said Khaled Abu Sanger, a neighbour. A third Palestinian also died.

Enas was in her ninth month of pregnancy. The Israeli military later said they took action in response to Hamas firing 180 rockets at its territory.

It was the third major escalation since July and came despite attempts by UN officials and Egypt to secure a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas.

Mohammed Abu Khammash, now a widower, was taken to the nearby Al Aqsa Hospital, where he woke up in a third floor bed hours after the military action that killed his family.

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He suffered head, leg and back injuries and could not attend the funerals of his loved ones, the coffin of which was draped in the Palestinian flag with the top cover bearing a picture of Bayan.

"My sister was dreaming to deliver her baby in good health, she was so excited and had prepared the room for the baby and clothes. Unfortunately, she left us and took her children with her," Iman Abu Khammash told The National.

Sahar Abu Kammash, a 22-year-old friend of the dead mother, said: "Enas is gone, who will bring Enas to me again? Bring her to me."

Hamas announced a halt to the rocket fire following the clashes. Israel's military declined to comment.

In nearby Israeli communities, residents were sent scrambling to bomb shelters.

Most of the rockets fired by Hamas landed in open areas, but at least two hit the Israeli town of Sderot near the Strip and sirens sounded throughout the night and into the morning.

Medics reported at least four wounded taken to Israeli hospitals, including a 30-year-old Thai woman in moderate to severe condition after being injured in the Eshkol region bordering the Gaza Strip.

Israel's military reported that seven civilians were wounded.

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Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman told The National: "The Israeli occupation is intended to cause an escalation and disrupt the united nation and Egyptian efforts to end the siege. We warned against continuing the escalation on the Gaza Strip but the Israeli occupation did not respect the Palestinians and they started to kill civilians. We don't want a war but we want the Israeli occupation to respect the rules of the truce."

Before the Gazan decision to halt fire, rockets and mortars targeting Israel had continued sporadically on Thursday morning as had Israeli strikes in parts of the Gaza Strip.

"I rented this house to civilians and I'm surprised that this house was bombed," said Abdul Al Hakeem Abu Amra, the owner of the house where Enas and her daughter were killed.

Israel's army said it targeted more than 150 Hamas military locations, including weapons manufacturing sites.

Military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said he had no information on those who died but added that a pregnant Israeli woman was taken to hospital on Wednesday night after a rocket landed nearby.

"What I can say is that we targeted by definition only military targets that were clearly used by Hamas where there was an active presence of Hamas and nothing else," he told reporters.