- - Sunday, November 18, 2012

JERUSALEM — An Israeli rocket launched Sunday killed a senior Hamas leader in charge of the terrorist movement’s missile operations, as fighting between the Jewish state and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip entered its fifth day and foreign leaders scrambled to prevent the conflict from escalating.

President Obama reiterated U.S. support for Israel but urged a diplomatic solution to the violence, which flared up when Hamas started firing rockets at Israeli towns and cities over the past several months.

The Israeli army said it killed Yehia Bia, the Hamas commander in charge of missile operations, when a missile flattened a two-story house in a residential neighborhood of Gaza City as Israel expanded its targets to include the homes of wanted terrorists.

Gaza officials said the strike killed 11 civilians, including five women and four children.

Israeli missiles also hit two media centers in Gaza, wounding six Palestinian journalists Sunday and damaging the equipment of several foreign media outlets from Europe. The buildings were targeted because they housed the offices of Hamas’ Al Aqsa TV station and the pro-Islamist Al Quds TV of Lebanon.

In Jerusalem, political and military leaders debated expanding the operation with a ground invasion of Gaza, but agreed they would prefer to avoid sending troops into the Palestinian territory.

Israel also could lose some international support if it launches a ground operation, said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

“A ground invasion is much more difficult for the international community to sympathize with or support, including the United Kingdom,” he said.

Israel confirmed that it sent a representative to Cairo, where Egyptian and other Islamic leaders were attempting to persuade Hamas delegates to accept a cease-fire.

Israel’s Channel 2 reported Saturday night that Hamas rejected the calls for a truce and asked its Arab allies instead to send them more rockets.

Meanwhile, Israel’s military chief of staff, Gen. Benny Gantz, told troops massing on Gaza’s border to prepare for house-to-house fighting if they have to enter the Gaza Strip to stop the missile attacks.

“Look back once at [the Israeli towns being rocketed], and then look only forward,” he said.

Israeli officers have said that an incursion would require a massive preliminary bombardment and involve heavy fighting with many casualties. In the incursion into Gaza four years ago, more than 1,000 Gazans, including several hundred civilians, were killed. Ten Israeli soldiers were killed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by phone over the weekend with Mr. Obama and several European leaders, all of whom backed the Israeli air attack as a legitimate response to Hamas rocketing.

During a visit to Thailand on Sunday, Mr. Obama reiterated his support for Israel.

“No country on earth would tolerate missiles raining down” on its population, he said.

In his conversations with Mr. Obama and European leaders, Mr. Netanyahu urged them to intercede with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and have him put pressure on Hamas.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has joined Mr. Morsi in his talks in Cairo with Hamas representatives.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel has no desire to launch a ground attack but would have no alternative if Hamas continues firing rockets at Israel.

“We have mobilized forces to end the threat, and we may have to be even more aggressive than we have been,” he said.

Meanwhile, fighting continued over the weekend as Hamas and Islamic Jihad allies fired rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in their first attempts to hit Israel’s major cities.

At least five missile strikes were fired at Tel Aviv, but the rockets either failed to reach the coastal city or were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense. One rocket was fired at Jerusalem on Friday evening, just as residents were preparing for their Sabbath eve meal, but it exploded in an open area away from the city.

The Israeli air force has hit more than 1,000 targets since Wednesday, attacking arsenals, launching pads, tunnels and other elements in the military infrastructure of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip.

The air force destroyed a Hamas building used for constructing unmanned drone aircraft designed to attack Israeli cities, a military spokesman said.

Using precision weapons in order to avoid “collateral damage” to civilians, the air force has dropped 200 tons of bombs daily in the densely built-up Palestinian enclave.

Israeli army intelligence also managed to take electronic control of the Hamas radio station. It broadcast a warning in Arabic for Gaza citizens to distance themselves from Hamas rocket sites and other military targets frequently located in residential areas.

Israeli planes attacking before dawn Sunday also destroyed the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and the Interior Ministry. Both offices were empty. Gaza’s civilian infrastructure has not been targeted, although the bombing has caused power failures.

Despite the fierce air attacks, Hamas and other militant groups have continued firing about 250 missiles a day at Israel.

The Gaza militants have fired 1,000 rockets at Israel since the beginning of the conflict, but close to 90 percent of those heading for built-up areas were intercepted by Israel’s anti-missile system.

Most of the rest either landed in open areas or failed to travel beyond Gaza’s border. A few dozen rockets landed in Israeli towns, killing three people and wounding several dozen.

In Washington, members of Congress criticized Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government for doing too little to persuade the Gaza militants to stop firing missiles at Israel. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, threatened Egypt with a cutoff of the $2 billion in annual U.S. aid.

“Egypt, watch what you do and how you do it,” the South Carolina Republican said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“You’re teetering with the Congress on having your aid cut off if you keep inciting violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, on ABC’s “This Week” called Egypt’s response to the crisis “pretty weak.”

“I think that they’re going to have to take some very serious steps diplomatically to make it clear to Hamas that they’re going to lose support in the Arab world if they continue these rocket attacks on Israel,” the Michigan Democrat said.

Lawmakers also blamed Iran for arming Hamas and questioned Egypt’s role in that.

“My guess is there has to be some tacit involvement in Egypt and the border, or these things wouldn’t be getting into Gaza,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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