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Peace call, forging ties topped Mukherjee’s Middle East agenda

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New Delhi: President Pranab Mukherjee late on Thursday concluded what he said was a a historic maiden visit by an Indian head of state to Jordan, Palestine and Israel, giving a push to bilateral ties, while calling for peace and restraint amid heightened tensions in the region.

In an interaction with the media on board the Air India One on his return, the president said he also sought to send home the point that India’s ties with one country were not linked to another and that this was respected and appreciated by the leaderships of all three countries.

The president, who had a hectic schedule in all three countries, also made a significant point during his interaction with opposition leader Isaac Herzog in Israel. “My point was mere religion cannot be the basis of a state, Mukherjee said.

“For example, a large number of Arab countries practice one religion, but they have not converged into one country. Similarly, Pakistan was formed on the basis of religion, a large chunk has been split into an independent state within 25 years,” the president noted.

During the visits, a section of the media in both Palestine and Israel was critical of the Indian president’s visit to the other country, especially at this juncture when cases of stabbing by the Jewish and Arab communities are being reported almost on a daily basis, especially in Jerusalem.

But the president brushed aside such conjectures.

“In Palestine, President Mahmoud Abbas appreciated our support and he thanked me profusely for staying overnight in Ramallah — being the first head of state from any country to do so. He respectfully described us as ‘brothers’ and not just friends,” the Indian president said.

“Twenty-three years ago, we established full-fledged diplomatic relationship with Israel. We are mainiaining our stated principled position with Palestine. Therefore, this is the job which the government of India is doing for more than two-and-a-half decades.”

Earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had also called Mukherjee’s visit significant. “This is historic — the first by an Indian head of state. We welcome you to the only democracy in the Middle East. Our two countries have stayed as examples for democracies for seven decades.”

The visit also saw the top three universities in each of the three countries – the University of Jordan, the Al-Quds University in Palestine and Hebrew University – confer honorary doctorates on Mukherjee, besides the signing of a host of agreements ranging from education to technology.

He also met expatriate Indians in both Jordan and Israel, where they number around 10,000 each.

Another significant outcome was the inauguration of a $860-million Indo-Jordanian fertilizer unit with King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussain that will produce and export to India 4,500 million tonnes of sulphuric acid and 1,500 million tonnes of phosphoric acid annually, besides other nutrients.

This apart, the president also got the opportunity to address lawmakers in both Jordan and Israel — the Majlis al-Umma and the Knesset, respectively.

The thrust of the visit was on ensuring peace in the region.

“In public meetings, I expressed distress at recent incidents of violence and condemned all forms of terrorism and called for peaceful resolution of all disputes,” the president said, adding none of the leaderships desired that such incidents erupt into a religious war.

(IANS)

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Israeli Warplanes Struck 100 Hamas Targets in Gaza Strip After Rocket Attack

It was the first time the city had been targeted since a 2014 war between Israel and Gaza militants

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Palestinians check a building belonging to Hamas ministry of prisoners destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, March 15, 2019. Israeli warplanes attacked militant targets in the southern Gaza Strip early Friday in response to a rare rocket attack on Tel Aviv. VOA

Israeli warplanes on Friday struck about 100 Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip in response to a rare rocket attack on Tel Aviv. Rocket fire persisted throughout the morning, setting the stage for possible additional reprisals.

The army said that its targets had included an office complex in Gaza City used to plan and command Hamas militant activities, an underground complex that served as Hamas’ main rocket-manufacturing site, and a center used for Hamas drone development. There were no reports of casualties.

The late-night attack on Tel Aviv, Israel’s densely populated commercial and cultural capital, marked a dramatic escalation in hostilities. It was the first time the city had been targeted since a 2014 war between Israel and Gaza militants.

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An explosion caused by Israeli airstrikes is seen on Gaza City, March 15, 2019. VOA

Hamas denied responsibility for the initial rocket attack, saying it went against Palestinian interests. But after a preliminary investigation, Israel said it had concluded that the militant group was behind the attack.

Following the Israeli airstrike, several additional rounds of rocket fire were launched into Israel. The military said several rockets were intercepted by its air defense systems, and there were no reports of injuries.​

Egyptian mediators

The fighting broke out as Egyptian mediators were in Gaza trying to broker an expanded cease-fire deal between the bitter enemies.

The initial blasts from the Israeli airstrikes in southern Gaza were so powerful that smoke could be seen in Gaza City, 25 kilometers (15 miles) to the north. The Israeli warplanes could be heard roaring through the skies above Gaza City.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized power in Gaza in 2007. Smaller flare-ups have occurred sporadically since Israel and Hamas fought their last war, in 2014.

Israeli election, Hamas criticism

The sudden outburst of fighting comes at a sensitive time for both sides. Israel is holding national elections in less than a month. Netanyahu is locked in a tight fight for re-election and could face heavy criticism from his opponents if he is seen as ineffective against the militants.

Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett, a hard-line rival of Netanyahu’s, called on the prime minister to convene a gathering of his Security Cabinet and demand the army “present a plan to defeat Hamas.”

Likewise, Hamas has come under rare public criticism in Gaza for the harsh conditions in the territory. An Israeli-Egyptian blockade, combined with sanctions by the rival Palestinian Authority and mismanagement by the Hamas government, have fueled an economic crisis in the territory. Residents have little desire for another war with Israel.

Earlier Thursday, Hamas police violently broke up a small protest over the harsh living conditions.

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Smoke and flame are seen during an Israeli airstrike in Gaza, March 15, 2019. VOA

Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, the chief Israeli military spokesman, said the army had been caught off guard by Thursday night’s rocket barrage and had no advance intelligence.

Israel holds Hamas responsible for all fire coming out of the territory. Hamas possesses a large arsenal of rockets and missiles capable of striking deep inside Israel.

But with Gaza’s economy in tatters, the group has been seeking to preserve calm.

Militants deny Tel Aviv attack

Hamas denied responsibility for the attack on Tel Aviv, saying the rockets were launched when the group’s military wing was meeting with the Egyptian mediators.

In an unusual step that indicated Hamas was attempting to prevent further escalation, the Hamas Interior Ministry said the rocket fire went “against the national consensus” and promised to take action against the perpetrators.

But Israel’s military concluded that Hamas was responsible. In a statement early Friday, the army said “we can confirm” that Hamas carried out the rocket attack.

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Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed militant group that also has a large rocket arsenal, also denied firing the rockets. Smaller factions inspired by the Islamic State group also sometimes fire rockets, though it is unclear whether they possess projectiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv.

Earlier this week, Israel struck Hamas targets in Gaza in response to rocket fire on southern Israel, near the border. Late Thursday, local media said that Egyptian mediators left the territory. (VOA)