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israel: Netanyahu cuts White House visit short as conflict escalates

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he’s cutting short his visit to Washington after a Gaza rocket attack on Israel.

Mr Netanyahu, in Washington to meet US President Donald Trump, held emergency consultations with military officials back in Israel.

He said he would return home immediately after the White House meeting, cancelling an address to the AIPAC pro-Israel lobby group and meetings with congressional leaders.

media_cameraIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) welcomed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Jerusalem ahead of pro-Israel deal with Donald Trump. Picture: AFP

“There has been a criminal attack on the state of Israel and we will respond forcefully,” he said.

He says he will return to Israel to handle the crisis shortly after meeting with Mr Trump on Monday.

Mr Netanyahu arrived in Washington on Sunday for what was to have been a three-day visit. He was going to speak at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and was to be hosted at a White House dinner.

On Monday morning US Vice President Mike Pence confirmed that Mr Trump would sign an executive order recognising the sovereignty of Israel over the hotly-contested Golan Heights district.

media_cameraDruze men at the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights flash the V for victory sign as they look out across southwestern Syria. Picture: AFP

It comes as Israel mobilised its forces after a long-range rocket fired from the Gaza Strip slammed into a house in central Israel and wounded seven people early on Monday morning.

The sounds of air raid sirens jolted residents of the Sharon area, northeast of Tel Aviv, shortly after 5am, sending them scurrying to bomb shelters. A strong sound of an explosion followed.

The Israeli military said its Iron Dome rocket-defence system was not activated because the attack in central Israel had not been anticipated. The army added it was reinforcing its missile defence batteries in preparation for an escalation. Maj. Mika Lifshitz, a military spokeswoman, said it was a self-manufactured rocket with a range of 120 kilometres, making it one of the deepest rocket strikes ever carried out by Hamas.

media_cameraDonald Trump has bequeathed Israel the strategic plateau of Golan Heights which had been under dispute between the Israelis and Gaza’s Hamas. Picture: AFP

The attack prompted the military to deploy troops along Israel’s southern border.

After Mr Netanyahu promised a tough response Gaza’s Hamas leaders went into hiding, setting the stage for a possible major conflagration just two weeks before Israeli elections.

The early-morning rocket strike came at a sensitive time for both sides.

Mr Netanyahu, locked in a tight race for re-election, came under heavy criticism from his rivals on Monday and faced tough pressure to strike back at Hamas.

The Islamic militant group, meanwhile, is facing perhaps its toughest test since seizing control of Gaza 12 years ago.

media_cameraTourists pose at an old outpost in the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, which Donald Trump has abruptly declared as undisputedly Israel’s. Picture: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations are trying to broker a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas but that effort has yet to bring an agreement.

At the same time, there has been an uptick in violence in the West Bank over the past week, with a stabbing and shooting that left two Israelis dead near a West Bank settlement and Israel’s killing of two Palestinians it said attacked troops.

Originally published as Israeli PM cuts Trump visit short

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