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Friday 20 April 2018

Gaza fighting amid rumours of talks

Palestinians inspect the damage to a Rafah commercial centre after an Israeli strike (AP)
Palestinians inspect the damage to a Rafah commercial centre after an Israeli strike (AP)

Fighting between Israel and Gaza militants is raging despite claims of new ceasefire efforts as hundreds of Israelis living near the coastal strip fled their homes following a deadly mortar attack.

The Israeli Defence Ministry said it is helping anxious Israelis leave homes close to the war zone in what is effectively the government's first large-scale voluntary evacuation in nearly eight weeks of fighting.

There has so far been no end in sight to the war, which has already killed more than 2,100 Palestinians since the fighting erupted on July 8. On the Israeli side, 68 people have been killed, all but four of them soldiers.

At least seven Palestinians were reported killed in new airstrikes today, and at least 60 rockets were fired from Gaza onto Israel.

The latest escalation in the conflict erupted last week after a six-day temporary truce collapsed. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said there were new efforts under way to reach an extended ceasefire agreement, but neither side seemed to be easing its attacks.

While the Israeli public has widely supported Israel's campaign to halt rocket attacks out of Gaza, the government has come under criticism for its inability to stop the fire and anger has risen, especially following the death of a four-year-old boy on Friday when a Palestinian mortar landed in Nahal Oz, a kibbutz near the Gaza border.

Israel's air raid sirens and rocket-defence system are ill-equipped to deal with mortars, which are fired from short ranges, giving little time for people to scramble for cover.

"It looks like we will not return to Nahal Oz, no way," Gila Tragerman, the boy's mother told Army Radio today.

Livnat Ginzbourg, a spokeswoman for Israeli communities along the Gaza border, said some 100 families were leaving their homes, following a similar number the previous day.

It is another major exodus of residents during the fighting. Many people fled last month after the discovery of Hamas tunnels that had been burrowed into Israel. Residents were encouraged to return home after Israel said it destroyed the tunnels and a preliminary truce was reached.

Ms Ginzbourg said some families had stayed in Israeli government-funded accommodation during the recent war, but today's evacuation was the first time the government was co-ordinating and financing temporary accommodation for all families wishing to flee.

She estimated that 70 to 80% of residents in communities closest to the Gaza border have fled, mostly families with young children.

Defence Ministry spokesman Jonathan Mosery said it was not a mandatory evacuation, but the government was assisting Israelis who live up to five kilometres (3 miles) from the Gaza border, paying for them to stay at youth hostels and other accommodation in areas further away.

The need to uproot families yet again, just days before the start of the school year, has led to widespread exasperation.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Israeli residents of the Gaza border area, saying the government would "do our utmost to help you through these difficult days" and promising an "extraordinary package of assistance for your communities".

The Israeli military said it carried out at least 16 airstrikes on Gaza early today, targeting a mosque it said was used to store weapons and another it said militants used as a meeting point.

The military also said that Palestinian militants from the densely populated strip fired at least 60 rockets into Israel. Three rockets were intercepted in mid-air and the others landed in open areas.

Palestinian health officials said seven people were killed, including a 42-year-old woman who was killed by tank fire in northern Gaza.

The latest exchanges came a day after Mr Netanyahu warned that the Israeli military campaign in Gaza could go into September.

Press Association

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