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Air Strikes And Rockets Erupting Over Gaza


We now turn to the Gaza Strip, where violence between Israelis and Palestinians is heading into its third day. So far, 18 Palestinians, including two civilians, have been killed by Israeli airstrikes. Militants in Gaza have fired rockets into southern Israel, also causing injuries. This is the worst round of violence in the area in more than a year. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us on the line from Jerusalem. Good morning, Lulu.


WERTHEIMER: Now, can you tell us why all this started?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, on Friday Israel targeted the head of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza. This is a kind of umbrella armed militant group. Israel says it was compelled to target the head of the PRC because he was planning a military operation; would target and kill Israelis in the Sinai Peninsula, and so they assassinated him on Friday. That set off the militant groups, who then retaliated with a barrage of rockets that we're still seeing now.

Israel has subsequently launched repeated airstrikes. So far, 16 militants have been killed. Today, two civilians were killed, a young 12-year-old Palestinian boy and a 60-year-old Palestinian man. Over a hundred rockets have fired into Israel in retaliation so far.

WERTHEIMER: Who is being affected by this violence?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, some one million Israelis are within range of the rocket fire from Gaza. And today, schools throughout that area and Ben Gurion University in Beersheba have been closed because of the fighting. In Gaza, the sound of Israeli planes circling overhead have people also staying indoors in fear. There are 1.6 million Palestinians in Gaza, and most of them can't travel, as you know, as Israel controls the air and sea around the Strip. And both Israel and Egypt maintain tight restrictions on the land crossings.

WERTHEIMER: How likely is it, do you think, that a cease fire can be arranged?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, we know that Egypt is trying to get the groups in Gaza to agree to stop firing rockets. Gaza is ruled by the militant group Hamas, which has been observing an unofficial cease fire since the Gaza War. But there are other armed groups there and these groups, mainly Islamic Jihad and the PRC - the Popular Resistance Committees - are refusing to back down. Here in Israel, the government contends that Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and so it should be held responsible for the rocket fire emanating out of there.

At the start of his weekly cabinet meeting, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, said Israel will, quote, "act as long as necessary." So at the moment, it's really not clear when a cease fire will be brokered.

WERTHEIMER: Israel has been using its missile defense system to intercept the incoming rockets. How is that working?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the system is called Iron Dome, and it's been touted as a game changer here in Israel. This is the first time it's really been tested in such a large-scale way and it's worked remarkably well. It's managed to strike down almost all the rockets that were deemed a threat. You have to remember some rockets end up falling in open areas. And part of what Iron Dome does is track and then destroy the incoming projectiles that look like they will hit sensitive areas. And by that I mean populated areas, and we've seen it do that over the past 48 hours. There's been 30 interceptions by early this afternoon and most of those were successful.

WERTHEIMER: On balance, what do you think? How serious a flare-up is this?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, so far there's no indication that Israel's planning a ground offensive into Gaza as it did three years ago during the Gaza War. And it doesn't seem like Hamas is inclined to go head-to-head with the Israeli military again. But, you know, as frequently happens in this region, events can spin out of control, and unless there's a cease fire brokered, violence, analysts worry, could escalate. You know, we're in unpredictable time here in the Middle East after the Arab Spring. There's what's happening in Syria, the volatility in Egypt, tensions with Iran over its suspect nuclear program, and the violence in Gaza has put the region further on edge.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, reporting from Jerusalem. Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.