(Bloomberg) -- Israel carried out dozens of airstrikes across the Gaza Strip on Monday evening, following a tense day that began with a rocket attack on a home in central Israel and a counterstrike that reduced the office of Hamas’s leader to ruins.
Amid the escalation, both sides made preparations for the possibility of a broader confrontation. Israel moved troops closer to its southern border and declared closed military zones near Gaza. Reserves were called up, additional Iron Dome missile-defense batteries were deployed and bomb shelters were opened, including in Tel Aviv.
Television reports showed near-empty streets in southern Israeli communities. In Gaza, hospitals across the territory were put on an emergency footing.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Washington for a speech and meetings with President Donald Trump, called the initial strike, which injured seven people in a village 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Gaza, a “criminal attack on the state of Israel” and vowed to “respond forcefully.” Netanyahu initially was expected to cut his visit to Washington short, though it wasn’t clear later if he would follow through on that.
The conflict overshadowed Trump’s decision on Monday to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, reversing decades of U.S. policy with a presidential proclamation. A major military escalation could prove risky for Netanyahu, who is facing a tough re-election battle on April 9 amid a wide-ranging corruption scandal.
“It highlights an area that he’s perceived as not having delivered the results,” said Israel Democracy Institute President Yohanan Plesner. “The political impact of this Gaza escalation is also that it draws the attention away from the Trump recognition of the Golan Heights that was supposed to be an important moment in his campaign.”
If he stays in Washington, Netanyahu will likely address the annual America Israel Public Affairs Committee conference on Tuesday, as he was originally scheduled to do.
Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, late Monday night reported that the two sides had reached a cease-fire agreement through Egyptian mediation, although airstrikes and rocket fire continued. Netanyahu’s office, the Foreign Ministry and the Israeli army all declined to comment on the cease-fire claim, as they customarily do.
Attacks on Israel have escalated since Hamas suppressed recent protests against living conditions in the coastal enclave, which is groaning under Israeli and Egyptian blockades, sanctions imposed by the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, and Hamas taxes.
Weekly protests along the border with Israel have morphed into confrontations between soldiers and Hamas-led “nighttime confusion units,” backed by teams dispatching incendiary balloons. Three Palestinians were killed in confrontations last weekend in what Palestinians call the “Marches of Return,” which are approaching their one-year anniversary this weekend.
None of the militant groups in Gaza claimed responsibility for Monday morning’s rocket attack, saying it had been an accident -- the same explanation given for a March 14 attack near Tel Aviv that caused no injuries or damage. The attacks challenge Netanyahu’s reputation as the guardian of Israel’s security just as he faces a challenge at the polls from a center-left bloc led by former Army chief Benny Gantz.
“I have a simple message to Israel’s enemies: We will do whatever we must do to defend our people and defend our state,” Netanyahu said at a news conference with Trump at the White House, saying he would “lead the people of Israel and the soldiers of Israel.”
Israel’s army said its targets included a secret Hamas intelligence headquarters that was one of the group’s “central assets,” as well as the office of Hamas Chairman Ismail Haniyeh, who vowed that “our people won’t surrender.” Gaza health officials reported seven people were injured in the wave of attacks.
The rocket fire interrupted a U.S. trip Netanyahu hoped would bolster an election campaign tarnished by his recent entanglement in a naval acquisition bribery scandal. The prime minister, who is likely to be indicted in three other corruption cases, has not been a suspect in the case, but Israeli media say prosecutors are weighing investigating him after learning Netanyahu once held shares in a company that supplied German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp AG. Netanyahu says he sold the shares in 2010, long before the sub order, and is innocent of any wrongdoing.
Some polls have shown Netanyahu’s Likud party slipping since the reports emerged, but his current coalition of right-wing and religious parties still would have an advantage over Gantz’s bloc. Gantz, addressing AIPAC on Monday, staked out hardline security positions similar to Netanyahu’s, while calling for domestic unity.
“The reality in the south, as we unfortunately saw today, where Israeli children spend their nights in bomb shelters while the heads of Hamas celebrate, must end now,” Gantz said. He also swiped at Netanyahu, saying “divisive dialogue” is tearing Israel apart, and pledged that a government he leads would have no corruption.
--With assistance from Saud Abu Ramadan and Ivan Levingston.
To contact the reporters on this story: Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem at email@example.com;Michael S. Arnold in Tel Aviv at firstname.lastname@example.org
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