Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN

Mishmeret  - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to the US on Monday and the military said it sent  reinforcements to the Gaza border after a rocket attack near Tel Aviv wounded seven people.

Netanyahu threatened a forceful response to the long-range strike amid accusations from opponents in a closely contested Israeli election, two weeks away, that he had been showing weakness in the face of security challenges from Gaza militants.

Netanyahu, who arrived in Washington on Sunday for a four-day visit, said he would fly home right after meeting President Donald Trump at the White House as planned later on Monday.

“This was a heinous attack on the State of Israel and we will respond strongly,” Netanyahu said.

“In the light of the security events, I have decided to cut short my visit to the US. In a few hours, I will meet President Trump and immediately after that I will return to Israel to direct our actions close-hand."

The Israeli military said Hamas, the armed group that rules Gaza, fired the rocket that destroyed a house in Mishmeret, a village north of Tel Aviv.

There was no claim of responsibility for the early morning strike. The military said Hamas launched the rocket from about 120 km away, making it the longest-range attack from Gaza causing casualties since the 2014 war.

A Palestinian official familiar with Egypt’s efforts to broker a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, said Egyptian security officials “are working to restore calm — they have been doing so before and after today’s rocket”.

Israel’s Magen David Adom ambulance service said it treated seven people, including a 3-year-old boy, a 12-year-old girl and a 60-year-old woman who was suffering from blast injuries, burns and shrapnel wounds.

“It just made me feel really unsafe all of a sudden, which is a feeling I'm not used to,”  said Nitzan Shifrin, a 19-year-old Mishmeret resident.

The Israeli military was assigning two brigades to the Gaza area and some reservists were being called up.

“We are prepared for a wide range of scenarios,” said chief spokesman Ronen Manelis.

Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East envoy, said on Twitter: “We condemn this violence from Gaza and affirm Israel’s right to defend itself.”

The attack coincided with tension ahead of the anniversary this weekend of Gaza protests that have included Palestinian attempts to breach the frontier and often lethal Israeli fire.

Palestinians in Gaza have launched many incendiary balloons towards Israeli farms and villages along the frontier — attacks that have triggered Israeli air strikes, at times against Hamas facilities abandoned in advance.

Two rockets were launched at Tel Aviv on March 14, but caused no injuries or damage. Israel blamed them on Hamas, though a security official later said the salvo was set off by accident.

In Gaza, Palestinians were bracing for retaliation as Israel closed its border crossings with the territory and access to the sea. Yahya Sinwar, Gaza’s Hamas chief, cancelled a planned public meeting scheduled for Monday afternoon.

The prospect of a wider confrontation with Hamas poses a dilemma for Netanyahu as the April 9 ballot nears.

Seven weeks of fighting in 2014 against Gaza militants led to heavy casualties and damage in the impoverished territory and rocket strikes against Israel that disrupted daily life.

However, recent Gaza violence has put a dent in Netanyahu’s tough-on-security image at a time when he is running neck-and-neck with centrist challenger Benny Gantz, a former armed forces chief, and facing calls for tough action from his political rivals who are competing with him for the right-wing vote.

Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, after Trump said it was time to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, an area it captured from Syria in a 1967 war, was seen at home as a bid to boost the Likud leader’s chances of a fifth term.

Netanyahu’s election prospects have been clouded by graft allegations against him. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Reuters