Palestinians fire rockets, Israel hits Gaza days after US call for calm
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) -Israeli aircraft struck in Gaza on Thursday in response to Palestinian rocket fire, days after the United States called for calm, but there was no immediate sign of a wider escalation in violence following days of tension.
With no reports of serious casualties, the exchange followed a familiar pattern that signalled neither side was seeking a wider conflict.
Separately, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Israel, which collects taxes on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (PA), would use 100 million shekels ($29 million) from PA funds to compensate victims of Palestinian militant attacks, against stipends the PA pays to assailants' families, said.
There was no immediate comment from the PA.
The military said its air strikes targeted rocket and weapons production sites used by Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the blockaded strip, in response to Wednesday's rocket launch.
No Palestinian groups claimed Wednesday's rocket fire.
Powerful explosions shook buildings and lit up the night sky over Gaza as sirens sounded in Israeli towns and villages around the strip warning of incoming rocket fire before dawn on Thursday.
The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) said it had fired some of the rockets in response to the air strikes and the "systematic aggression" against Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
The exchange of fire underlined the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians after a Palestinian gunman shot dead seven people near a synagogue on the outskirts of Jerusalem and an Israeli raid in the West Bank killed 10 Palestinians, including eight militants.
SPATE OF ATTACKS
Last year was the deadliest in more than a decade in the West Bank, with violence steadily escalating following a spate of lethal Palestinian attacks in Israel, which drew stepped-up Israeli raids against gunmen.
U.S. President Joe Biden met Jordan’s King Abdullah at the White House on Thursday and the two discussed "opportunities and mechanisms to reduce tensions, particularly in the West Bank,” between Israel and the Palestinians, the White House said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on both sides to restore calm while wrapping up a visit to the region on Tuesday, in which he reaffirmed Washington's support for a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict.
Top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Barbara Leaf, and U.S. special representative for Palestinian affairs, Hady Amr, remained behind to pursue de-escalation talks between the sides and were due to meet Palestinian officials on Thursday.
"They are there to support the parties and the steps the parties will have to take to break this cycle of violence," U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Thursday.
In Gaza, activists rallied in support of women prisoners held by Israel after far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who oversees prisons, said he would push ahead with plans to toughen conditions for Palestinian prisoners.
Ben-Gvir has vowed a crackdown on "benefits and indulgences" offered to Palestinian prisoners and ordered amenities including prisoner-operated bread ovens in some prisons to be curtailed.
Hamas official Mushir Al-Masri told Reuters the latest Ben-Gvir decisions "added fuel to the fire".
"The issue of prisoners has always been on the agenda of the Palestinian resistance, and the screams by female prisoners inside the jails of the Zionist enemy risk a tough confrontation in which the Palestinian resistance will not stand handcuffed," Masri said.
Separately, an official from Iran-backed Islamic Jihad said a delegation from the group's political office, led by the faction's chief-in-exile Ziyad al-Nakhala, would visit Cairo on Friday for talks that would include the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The official, who asked not to be named, said the visit was scheduled before the latest violence but he said the current escalation in Gaza and the West Bank would inevitably be discussed.
Cairo has also invited Hamas chief, Ismail Haniyeh, who currently resides between Qatar and Turkey, for separate talks next week, said a Palestinian official familiar with Egyptian mediation.
(Additional reporting by Henriette Chacar and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, and Simon Lewis and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)