TIME Israel

Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg Flies to Israel, Dismissing Safety Fears

Israeli rescue and military personnel at the wreckage of a home in the town of Yehud, outside Tel Aviv, and near the Ben Gurion Airport, that was hit by a missile fired by Palestinian militants from inside the Gaza Strip, July 22, 2014.
Israeli rescue and military personnel at the wreckage of a home in the town of Yehud, outside Tel Aviv, and near the Ben Gurion Airport, that was hit by a missile fired by Palestinian militants from inside the Gaza Strip, July 22, 2014. Gideon Markowicz—EPA

Hamas rockets may be falling from the skies, but Israel, Bloomberg says, is "safe" and "a great place to visit”

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has flown to the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, CBS reports, thumbing his nose at the safety concerns that grounded most Israel-bound flights from the U.S. earlier in the day.

Bloomberg said he was not trying “to prove anything,” but wanted to show that Israel was “safe, and a great place to visit.” The trip is also a gesture of support for the Jewish state during its current offensive against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Speaking before boarding a flight at New York City’s JFK airport, Bloomberg said, “Israel has a right to defend its people, and they’re doing exactly what they should be doing.”

Earlier Tuesday, a Palestinian rocket landed just a mile from Ben Gurion Airport, situated 20 km (12 miles) from Tel Aviv’s city center, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to place a 24-hour moratorium on flights by U.S. carriers to and from Israel. By that point, however, it was a mere formality: Delta Airlines United Airlines, and U.S. Airways, which collectively operate four flights from JFK and Newark Liberty International Airport each day, had already suspended their trips for the foreseeable future. Shortly before it was to touch down in Tel Aviv, a Delta flight from JFK carrying nearly 400 Israel-bound immigrants diverted to Paris, where it landed Tuesday evening.

The avowedly pro-Israel Bloomberg will fly El Al, the country’s flagship carrier, which also operates four routes to and from the U.S. and has no plans to cancel these trips. The carrier has not commented on either the supposed safety risks or the U.S. response to them, but considering its close relationship with the Israeli government — it was state-owned until 2003, and owes much of its success to some subtle protectionism — one assumes it would echo the sentiments emphatically stressed on Tuesday by the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: flying to Israel is safe; not flying to Israel is to concede victory to the enemy.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Netanyahu on Tuesday evening regarding the intensifying turmoil in Gaza; Netanyahu, the U.S. State Department said, raised the issue of the flight ban, which the FAA will re-evaluate on Wednesday afternoon.

“The FAA’s notice was issued to protect American citizens and American carriers,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said. “The only consideration in issuing the notice was the safety and security of our citizens.”

In a statement released by his office earlier in the day, Bloomberg called upon the FAA to lift its ban, describing Ben Gurion Airport as “the best protected … in the world” — a sentiment he’s not the first to share. Still, for many, the proven efficacy of Israel’s intricate missile protection system may not be enough to mitigate the still-raw memories of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, whose nearly 300 passengers and crew members died after a surface-to-air rocket, likely fired by pro-Moscow separatists in the Ukraine, struck the aircraft last week.

TIME Israel

Birthright Youth Trips Continue As Israel-Gaza Conflict Rages On

There are currently nearly 2,500 youths traveling on Birthright

Updated 6:08 p.m. ET July 22,2014

As airlines around the world are canceling flights to Israel in light of a rocket attack near the country’s main international airport, the Birthright Israel program is carrying on with its mission of sending Jewish youth on free ten-day trips to the country.

Still, nearly a third of people scheduled to join upcoming trips have cancelled their plans since the conflict in Gaza has escalated, according to the organization. Some 2,600 people are currently in Israel on Birthright trips, according to the group, and more than 22,000 have participated over the course of the summer. Only 10 participants have returned early during the past few weeks, though some who recently came back from trips say they would have been unlikely to go given the current environment.

“There would be no way I would want to go on a trip now,” says Heather Paley, who returned to the U.S. from a Birthright trip just as the conflict began to intensify. “It’s a really small country, and I realized when they mentioned places that were being attacked, I was at those places.”

More than 600 people have died in the fighting as of Tuesday, Reuters reports, the vast majority of them Palestinian. One of the Israeli soldiers killed in the conflict was Max Steinberg, a Los Angeles native who enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces after visiting the country on a Birthright trip.

A Birthright spokesperson, Pamela Fertel Weinstein, says the organization is monitoring the situation in coordination with the Israel Ministry of Education, the Israeli Defense Forces, and other law enforcement organizations. She says that Birthright has maintained a strong safety record as conflicts involving Israel have ebbed and flowed, which she attributed to being “cautious and conservative.”

For all travelers in Israel, including Birthright participants, the cancellations of flights to by American and European carriers may hinder their ability to leave the country. On July 22, the Federal Aviation Administration banned U.S. airlines from flying to Israel for a 24-hour period, and the order could be extended. Several European carriers have cancelled their flights as well. Nonetheless, Weinstein says that the program works with a variety of airlines and hotels to ensure that nobody is left without assistance and lodging in the event of cancellations or delays.

Other tourists are left up to their own devices. Julia May, who cut short a three-week educational program to Israel this month after seeing rockets from the beach, says she was torn between the opposing perspectives of her American friends who thought she was “crazy” to stay in the country and the positive mindset in Israel.

“Even when you’re just a visitor you get this mentality ‘yeah, I can stay through this,’” she says. “But even if you feel safe, you know you’re still in a war zone.”

TIME Israel

Netanyahu’s Wikipedia Page Replaced With Palestinian Flag

It was changed back within an hour

In a sign of the information war taking place alongside the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, the biographical information on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Wikipedia page was briefly replaced with a large image of a Palestinian flag Tuesday afternoon.

Netanyahu
Wikipedia

Some observers noted on social media that the flag was on Netanyahu’s page for nearly an hour before getting switched back.

Wikipedia works through consensus editing — Nearly anyone can make a change to a Wikipedia page, but records of each change are kept and pages can be quickly re-edited or reverted to an earlier version if enough Wikipedia editors or users see fit to do so.

The latest wave of violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip began about three weeks ago. Netanyahu ordered the Israeli military to invade Gaza late last week, and the death toll on both sides of the conflict has been increasing.

TIME

Children Suffer as War Continues in Gaza and Israel

The father of 18-month-old Razel Netzlream, who was fatally wounded during an airstrike, carries her body right before her funeral, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 18, 2014.
The father of 18-month-old Razel Netzlream, who was fatally wounded during an air strike, carries her body right before her funeral in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on July 18, 2014 Alessio Romenzi

As Israel and Hamas continue fighting, children on both sides of the border are paying the price

Correction appended, July 23.

As the conflict in the Gaza Strip and Israel moves into its third week, the impact of the fighting on Palestinian and Israeli children has become a heart-breaking signature of the conflict. Reports from Gaza relay stories of shells destroying civilian homes, killing children sheltering within; of tank fire killing a 5-month-old baby; of a strike on a beach killing four young boys who had been kicking around a soccer ball. In Israel, parents hear the first wail of air-raid sirens, grab their frightened children and run for bomb shelters.

After two weeks of aerial attacks by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) against the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the densely populated Gaza Strip — followed by a ground offensive that began last week — the statistics are just as grim as the news reports. UNICEF’s communications chief in Jerusalem, Catherine Weibel, says that according to U.N.’s figures at least 121 Palestinian children under the age of 18 have been killed since the conflict started on July 8, making up a full one-third of Palestinian civilian casualties. Between July 20 to July 21 alone, she says, “there were at least 28 children killed in Gaza.”

The conflict, which was, in part, precipitated by the killing of children — first the murder of three Israeli teens in late June and then one Palestinian teen earlier this month — has so far claimed the lives of a further 479 Palestinians and 27 Israelis, according to the latest U.N. figures. But it’s perhaps the escalating toll on innocent children that has drawn the greatest concern from human rights organizations, world leaders and critics of both Hamas and Israel. In a press conference on July 22, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a cease-fire, saying that “too many Palestinian and Israeli mothers are burying their children.” The day before, U.S. President Barack Obama said in a press conference that there was an urgent need to “stop the deaths of innocent civilians.”

In response to the outcry over the loss of children’s lives — much of it directed toward Israel — the Israeli military has said that it has gone to extensive lengths to prevent civilian deaths, while psychologists in Israel point out that the conflict has taken a toll on Israeli as well as Palestinian children.

Lieut. Colonel Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the IDF, tells TIME that Israel has made efforts to “encourage people to leave areas that were potential combat zones” by releasing leaflets, sending texts and making phone calls before the IDF launched its ground offensive. Lerner says that civilians are never the targets. “Some of the targets have been civilian homes that have been utilized for command and control positions by terrorists,” he says.

Bill Van Esveld, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who is based in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, tells TIME that “given the fact that more than 50% of Gaza’s population is under 18 years old,” any attacks on the region’s densely packed residential areas are likely “going to harm civilians [and] chances are, given that population ratio, going to be killing kids.”

Given the large, young population in Gaza, experts say that many children are likely suffering from symptoms of trauma, even if they haven’t been physically injured. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that “at least 72,390 children require direct and specialized psychosocial support (PSS) on the basis of families who have experienced death, injury or loss of home over the past 10 days.” OCHA also expects that number to soar.

Israeli mother and son seen run to a bomb shelter as the siren goes off on July 14, 2014 at the city of Ashkelon.
An Israeli mother and her son run to a bomb shelter as the siren goes off in Ashkelon, Israel, on July 14, 2014. Ilia Yefimovich—Getty Images

So far no Israeli children have been killed in the conflict and there are no reports of injuries. But Israeli activists and researchers report that the conflict has traumatized children on both sides of the walls and fences that separate Gaza from Israel. Hamas has fired 2,000 missiles into Israel, according to the IDF, since the conflict began. Says clinical psychologist Yotam Dagan, the international cooperation director at Natal, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that treats victims of trauma related to war and terror: “It’s not just an Israeli problem and it’s not just a Palestinian problem — children are children are children, everywhere. Whenever hostilities break, you know the fire starts to blow [and] children are the first and the most likely to be affected by the situation.”

“When we talk about psychological trauma it’s like an invisible bullet,” Dagan tells TIME, “nobody sees it, but this experience of being near death or being nearly killed or exposed to explosions and rockets falling — or even the fear — it’s like an invisible bullet that goes through your soul, through your mind.”

Irwin Mansdorf, an Israeli psychologist and fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, says that Israeli children exposed to attacks by Hamas are susceptible to “real clinical symptoms as a result of real, distressing events.” According to both psychologists, the symptoms of trauma in children, much like in adults, can include nightmares, flashbacks, detachment, anxiety, depression or acting out and regression.

Some Israeli children are also dealing with being displaced from their homes. Roni Taronski, 12, is seeking refuge — along with her mother, grandmother and aunt — in a boarding school about 11 miles (18 km) southeast from her home in Kibbutz Mefalsim, which is only a mile from the Gaza border and has become a target of Hamas rocket fire. “It’s not that we don’t want to go, everybody wants to go home,” she tells TIME. “We’re not allowed. Our houses are [like] a military base right now.” When asked how she’s feeling so far away from home, Roni says she’s homesick. She then adds, “I’m really scared.”

In Gaza, Samira Attar, a 13-year-old girl from the Beit Lahia neighborhood, is among the 100,000 Palestinians who are now displaced and seeking refuge in an U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school, where her mother Souad, says the sound of shelling keeps the family awake at night. “I hate this school,” Samira tells TIME. “I want to play with my cousins and sisters and live normally like others.”

Twelve-year-old Shahd Majed lies on a bed in Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, her leg injured by shrapnel from a shell or bomb that exploded near her house on July 21. “I hate the war,” she says. “I want it to end please. I want to return to normal life. Please let us live.”

— With reporting by Hazem Balousha / Gaza

Correction: An earlier version of this story drew a premature conclusion about the source of the Israeli attack that killed four boys in Gaza. Israel is still investigating the strike.

TIME

Israeli Ambassador: Here’s What “Proportionality” In War Really Means

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer
Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer speaks to reporters at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor on July 22, 2014. Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor

Israel's man in Washington makes the case that his country's military strikes in Gaza have been proportional to the threat

The Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, challenged critics of his country’s military operation in Gaza Tuesday morning, saying they don’t understand the legal definition of “proportionality” in wartime.

Speaking to reporters at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor, Dermer, a former top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, argued that many are unfamiliar with the “rules of war” when they charge that his country has been disproportionate in its attacks on Gaza.

“We have to understand first of all what the rules of war are, because people don’t know them,” he said. “They throw around words like disproportionate without any understanding of what that actually means. A disproportionate response, from what I can gather in the interviews that I go to and the questions that I’m asked, disproportionate is believed to be what is the body count on both sides. So therefore if there’s 600 and something Palestinians who were killed and 25 Israelis, or a few days ago when there were 200 Palestinians and one Israeli, that is deemed to be a disproportionate response. That’s how most people deal with it.”

But Dermer said those assumptions were wrong. Dermer laid out the calculus that the Israeli government makes to justifying actions that may injure or kill civilians. He continued:

It’s important to understand what proportionality is in terms of the rules of war. There’s two basic principles that you have to remember. The first is distinction, you make a distinction between combatants and noncombatants. That’s the most important principle of the rules of war, that you have to make that distinction. And here Israel always makes that distinction. You have have Hamas that is deliberately targeting our civilians hoping to kill as many as possible. And you have Israel that does not deliberately target a single Palestinian civilian. We don’t deliberately target their civilians. For us, when a civilian is killed it’s an operational failure. And the more civilians who are killed, the greater the operational failure. And obviously a tragedy even of itself. And for Hamas, they celebrate—the greater the number of civilian casualties, for them, the greater the success of their operation.

And then you have the issue of proportionality.

Let’s say there’s a legitimate target because when a schoolhouse, hospital, mosque is turned into a military command center or a weapons depot, or a place where you fire rockets, it becomes by the rules of war a legitimate target. You cannot turn a hospital into a military command center. You cannot do that according to the rules of law. It’s a war crime for Hamas to do that. You cannot turn an UNRWA school into a weapons depot, that’s a war crime. You cannot use a Mosque as a missile manufacturing facility. It becomes a legitimate target. Then the question is okay, but can you target it in this specific instance.

There you get into the question of proportionality. Meaning, just because it’s a legitimate target doesn’t necessarily give you the right to hit it. Because for that, for you to be able to do that, you have to show that the gain you will get from the military action you take is worth the potential loss of lives that you might even foresee ahead of time. So I don’t want to get into theoretical examples but if you had you know 1 rocket that was sitting in a school somewhere and there are 50 kids in a classroom, then you cannot actually target to get to that rocket and kill those kids. That would be disproportionate because the gain that you have by hitting that one rocket would not justify killing 50 kids in the school. By the same token if you had 200 rockets in place and you had one civilian, by the rules of war, you could target that place even if you knew ahead of time that the civilian would be hurt.

Now there are all sorts of judgment calls that happen in between. Can you target that same target tomorrow or in an hour or in three hours? And Israel is always making these calculations.

To date, more than 500 people have died from the fighting, according to a count by the Washington Post Tuesday morning. That includes 25 Israeli soldiers, 2 Israeli civilians, 86 armed Palestinian militants and 406 Palestinian civilians. Of those Palestinian civilians, 129 were children.

TIME Israel

FAA Prohibits U.S. Airlines From Flying To Israel

The Delta Airlines Charter at the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on January 2, 2013.
The Delta Airlines Charter at the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on January 2, 2013. Jeff Haynes—Reuters

One flight was diverted to Paris before landing

Updated 7:04 p.m. ET Tuesday

The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday blocked all U.S. carriers from flying to Israel’s main airport for 24 hours. The ban comes after a rocket landed about a mile from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, the FAA said.

“The FAA immediately notified U.S. carriers when the agency learned of the rocket strike and informed them that the agency was finalizing a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen),” the FAA said in a statement. The ban only applies to U.S. air carriers.

Delta Airlines and United Airlines announced that they were indefinitely suspending Israel flights just hours before the FAA ban was handed down. Their decision to do so came after a Delta aircraft en route to Tel Aviv from New York diverted to Paris Monday evening out of a precautionary measure, Delta said Tuesday.

European airlines Lufthansa and Air France also suspended flights, according to a report from the Associated Press. One Lufthansa flight en route to Tel Aviv Tuesday was diverted to Athens, according to the Lufthansa website.

Ben Gurion International Airport has for about five days been exclusively using runway 21 for arriving flights, according to a separate NOTAM issued for that airport. Commerical jets arriving on runway 21 come in over the Mediterranean sea northwest of Ben Gurion before turning southward, according to approach plates for the airport. That may help keep them clear of any danger posed by rockets or other weapons fire from the Gaza Strip, which is to the airport’s southwest.

The FAA ban and the American carriers’ independent cancellations come a day after the U.S. State Department cautioned U.S. citizens against travel to Israel. Israel is currently engaged in a military operation in the Gaza Strip, and violence continues to escalate in that conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu raised the issue of the FAA flight ban with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday. According to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the prime minister asked Kerry to intervene so that flights resume, something White House officials said was unlikely. “We’re not going to overrule the FAA when they believe that their security procedures are triggered,” said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.

Danny Saadon, an executive at Israeli airline El Al, told TIME Monday that approximately 25 percent of its expected travelers from America had cancelled or postponed their flights in recent weeks. In an interview, Saadon said that the airline is “still maintaining [its] schedule,” and did not mention any plans to consider canceling flights. El Al has been experimenting with several forms of missile defense systems on its aircraft since 2004, though those are geared more towards defending aircraft from projectiles specifically targeting their aircraft, not from rocket crossfire.

As an Israeli airline, the FAA ban does not apply to El Al.

TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: July 22

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

In the news: Ukraine rebels turn over bodies from downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17; Kerry seeks Gaza cease-fire; Detroit suspends water shutoffs; One of the largest private gifts ever for scientific research; Georgia GOP primary; 10 years since the 9/11 Commission report

  • “After days of resistance, pro-Russian rebels on Monday yielded some ground in the crisis surrounding downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17—handing over passengers’ bodies, relinquishing the plane’s black boxes and pledging broader access for investigators to the crash site.” [WashPost]
    • Why Putin Is Willing to Take Big Risks in Ukraine [WSJ]
    • “The crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 exposes the truth about RT, the Russian English-language propaganda outlet.” [TIME]
  • Israel pounded targets across the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, saying no ceasefire was near as top U.S. and U.N. diplomats pursued talks on halting fighting that has claimed more than 500 lives. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held talks in neighboring Egypt, while U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was due to arrive in Israel later in the day.” [Reuters]
  • “Whether the Afghan forces can sustain themselves in the critical districts the Green Berets will be ceding to them is an urgent question all over the country. The answer will help define America’s legacy in Afghanistan, much as it has in Iraq, where the Iraqi forces have fallen apart in combat.” [NYT]
  • “Congress and the President have finally found some common ground: Obama will sign the first significant legislative job training reform effort in nearly a decade on Tuesday.” [TIME]
  • Breakthrough on VA Reform Bill? [Hill]
  • “President Barack Obama on Monday signed an executive order aimed at protecting workers at federal contractors and in the federal government from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.” [Politico]
  • “The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is suspending its water shutoffs for 15 days starting today to give residents another chance to prove they are unable to pay their bills.” [Detroit Free Press]
  • “…the Broad Institute, a biomedical research center, announced a $650 million donation for psychiatric research from the Stanley Family Foundation—one of the largest private gifts ever for scientific research. It comes at a time when basic research into mental illness is sputtering, and many drug makers have all but abandoned the search for new treatments.” [NYT]
  • Jack Kingston’s Insider Advantage [NJ]
  • “The evidence for a left-wing challenge to Clinton that could defeat her is thin to nonexistent.” [Slate]
  • “Ten years ago today, we released The 9/11 Commission Report to the government and the American public…” [USA Today]
TIME Palestine

Israel Hits More Than 70 Targets in Gaza, as Ban and Kerry Call for Truce

The U.N. Secretary General and the U.S. Secretary of State lament renewed carnage and call for a cease-fire

+ READ ARTICLE

Israeli warplanes struck more than 70 targets in the Gaza Strip in the early hours of Tuesday morning, including a stadium, five mosques and the home of a late Hamas military chief, reports the Associated Press.

The attacks came as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accelerated diplomatic efforts for an immediate cease-fire.

The Israel Defense Forces through its Twitter account on Tuesday said that it had killed 183 “terrorists” and struck at more than 1,300 “terror sites” in Gaza during the two-week-old Operation Protective Edge. However, according to Human Rights Watch, many of the attacks have been made on civilian structures, including a refugee camp and hundreds of homes, leading to thousands of displacements.

Some 584 Palestinians and 29 Israelis have been killed during the conflict. The U.N. estimates that 75% of Palestinian deaths are of civilians, with scores of women and children among them.

“We must find a way to stop the violence,” said Ban at a joint press conference in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, with Kerry. “So many people have died. As [Secretary Kerry] just said, it’s mostly [the] civilian population, women and children. It’s very sad, it’s tragic.”

Kerry called on Hamas to accept a cease-fire framework tabled by Egyptian authorities earlier this month.

“Israel has accepted that cease-fire proposal,” said Kerry, who landed in Egypt on Monday after being dispatched to the region by President Barack Obama on Sunday night. “So only Hamas now needs to make the decision to spare innocent civilians from this violence.”

Despite the heavy loss of Palestinian lives in the fighting, Kerry described Israel’s military operation in Gaza as “appropriate” and a “legitimate effort to defend itself.”

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities acknowledged to local media on Monday that they could not account for the whereabouts of one of their soldiers but that he may have been killed after an attack on an armored vehicle over the weekend.

The admission comes a day after Israel’s envoy to the U.N. dismissed claims made by Hamas on television Sunday that they had kidnapped an Israeli soldier.

TIME Israel

U.S. Issues Travel Warning for Israel, Gaza and West Bank

Gaza Strip, Gaza City: Palestinian man stands near a damaged building by Israeli airstrike targeting Hamas police chief Tayseer al-Batsh on July 13, 2014 in Gaza City. ALESSIO ROMENZI
A Palestinian man stands near a damaged building in Gaza City, July 13, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

Secretary of State John Kerry also announced $47 million in aid to Gaza

The U.S. State Department on Monday issued a new travel warning for Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while Secretary of State John Kerry announced a $47 million aid package for Gaza amid growing conflict in the region.

The warning, which replaces the one issued in February of this year, recommends U.S. citizens postpone non-urgent travel to the region if possible, and it upholds previous warnings against traveling to the Gaza Strip, where U.S. government employees are not allowed to travel.

Because of security concerns, the embassy in Tel Aviv is working with a reduced staff and limited service, while the embassy in Jerusalem is operating as normal. The full travel warning contains additional details about which areas and neighborhoods within Israel have been recent targets. On Sunday, Israel escalated its ground operations in Gaza, and the two regions have exchanged rocket fire over the past few weeks.

The humanitarian assistance Kerry announced Monday includes $15 million for United Nations relief efforts, $3.5 million for emergency assistance from the USAID’s OFfice of Foreign Disaster Assistance, $10 million in redirected USAID funding and $18.5 million in new USAID funding to address food, shelter and medical treatments for Palestinians in Gaza.

TIME

Tunnel Attacks Have Israel on Edge

A gunfight near a kibbutz has shown how close Hamas militants can now get to the Israeli population

+ READ ARTICLE

Sometime around 5 a.m. Monday, 10 men set out quietly on a predawn mission, dressed in Israeli army uniforms and boots.

They were not, however, members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They were members of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, and they had just emerged from one of the many tunnels the militants have dug between the Gaza Strip and Israel. That much, however, was not clear until the Israeli forces nearby noticed that the men who looked like their own were actually carrying Kalashnikovs and not Tavors, Israel’s standard-issue automatic rifles.

In the gunfight that ensued, Israeli soldiers killed 10 Hamas militants, the IDF says, but also lost four of its own when they were hit by an antitank rocket fired at them by the gunmen. The dramatic gun battle unfolded only about 650 ft. (200 m) from Kibbutz Nir Am, an agricultural commune founded by immigrants from Eastern Europe in 1943. Residents were ordered to remain indoors and roads were closed for the next five hours as the Israeli military officials were unsure if some of the Palestinian militants might have succeeded in breaking away from the group.

The incident is being seen in Israel as a narrowly averted nightmare. That militants could pop out of the ground just feet from a residential area shows just how far Hamas’ military wing has progressed toward being within arm’s reach of the Israeli population. One militant who was killed in a similar incident a few days ago had tranquilizers and handcuffs with him, suggesting one of his goals had been kidnapping.

Destroying as many tunnels as possible is the goal of the IDF’s Operation Defensive Edge, launched two weeks ago. The IDF says it has discovered close to 50 entrances to 14 tunnels since its ground invasion of Gaza began, and that it took fire Monday while it worked on destroying a tunnel in Shujaiyeh, the same neighborhood in which the IDF engaged in a late-night offensive a day earlier that left at least 60 civilians dead, as well as 13 Israeli soldiers.

“Only today … we understood the meaning of the danger of these tunnels when terrorists, wearing IDF uniforms, came out of the belly of the earth and were threatening our communities around Gaza,” Major General Sami Turgeman, the IDF head of the Southern Command, told reporters after the incident at Nir Am. “A huge disaster was avoided. This proves that we’re right to focus on the tunnels. They now know that the efforts they have invested, years of time and a great amount of money and hours of work, can be taken in a day of work by us, plus paying with the death of the militants who tried to infiltrate Israel.”

Gazans interviewed Monday were divided over the effectiveness of the tunnel campaign. Some residents said that the tunnel strategy was forcing Israel to suffer, and was perhaps even more effective than rockets. Others said the tunnels’ use would only increase the loss of life on both sides.

Hamas began building tunnels as a method of economic sustenance. As Israel tightened its borders with Gaza, first during the second intifadeh and more severely when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in 2007, Hamas started building tunnels in Gaza to smuggle goods in from Egypt. Hamas taxed the various tunnels and was also able to use each tunnel’s creation and operation as a kind of job-works program for desperate Gazans, at one point employing up to 7,000 people, according to an al-Jazeera report. (Doron Peskin, an analyst at the Israeli market-research firm Info-Prod Research, estimates that tunnels coming from Gaza into Israel cost $200 per m to construct.) Israel and Egypt — fearing militancy in Gaza was spilling over into the Sinai — have been acting for several years to shut these down.

But tunnels weren’t just a way to break the blockade. Palestinians realized they could also be used as a way to attack Israel. In 2006, militants used a tunnel to attack an Israeli army post and kidnap a 19-year-old soldier, Gilad Shalit. He was exchanged after more than five years in captivity for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails — a success Hamas would like to repeat. The possibility of an additional kidnapping like this has motivated Hamas to invest in an unknown number of tunnels, although Israeli army officials estimate there are likely 20 tunnels today.

“It is a very dangerous period because I think Hamas understands that their ability to use these tunnels is a window that is closing very quickly, and the time to gain some achievements with what they have built is limited,” says Shlomo Brom, a retired general and former director of the Strategic Planning Division of the IDF.

Had the militants managed to emerge in the middle of the Nir Am kibbutz Monday, they would have found Israeli soldiers who have been camping out in the community’s courtyards since many residents have fled to safer parts of the country. Of the 400 original residents, approximately 60 remain — those too old to move, their helpers, and members of the local emergency committee.

“This morning we woke up from this dream that such a thing could never happen. We haven’t had something like this since 1956, ahead of the Sinai campaign,” said Shlomo Maizlitz, head of the regional emergency committee, who was a 12-year-old boy during that war involving Israel, Gaza and Egypt. “We didn’t dream that the tunnels would get to our area. We thought it was too difficult to drill anywhere near it. Now, everything looks different.”

— With reporting by Hazem Balousha / Gaza City

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