JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel began moving troop reinforcements to its border with the Gaza Strip on Thursday, defense officials said, raising the possibility of an expanded military operation in the Palestinian territory in response to intensifying rocket barrages.
The movement of tanks and artillery forces came after another night of heavy rocket fire, including barrages that struck two homes in the southern border town of Sderot. Israel’s last major operation in Gaza, a territory controlled by the Hamas militant group, took place in late 2012.
The rocket fire comes at a time of heightened tensions following the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank. Israel has accused Hamas of being behind the deaths, and arrested hundreds of Hamas operatives in the West Bank as part of a broad manhunt in the largest ground operation in the West Bank in nearly a decade.
The Palestinians have meanwhile accused Israeli extremists of abducting and killing a teenage boy in east Jerusalem in a revenge attack, and stone-throwing youths clashed with Israeli police throughout the day Wednesday.
The weeks since the Israeli teens disappeared have seen militants in Gaza fire scores of rockets at Israel, which has responded with airstrikes against alleged militant targets. Two Palestinian militants were killed in an airstrike last week, and a young Palestinian girl was killed by an errant rocket attack. There have been no serious casualties on the Israeli side.
More than a dozen rockets struck Israel on Thursday, including the attacks on Sderot. The strikes knocked out electricity in part of the town but caused no injuries. Israel said it responded with overnight airstrikes on 15 Hamas targets.
Hamas seized Gaza in 2007 from forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas recently formed a unity government backed by Hamas meant to end the seven-year rift, but Hamas, which possesses thousands of rockets, remains in firm control of the coastal strip.
Israel threatened tough action against Hamas in response to the killing of the three teens. Hamas praised their suspected abduction but denied responsibility.
On Thursday, buses carrying Israeli troops could be seen heading to the Gaza border area, where soldiers milled about organizing their equipment.
A senior Israeli military official described the troop movements as “defensive.”
“If Hamas keeps things quiet, we will keep things quiet,” he said. He and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity under military guidelines.
In east Jerusalem, tensions remained high as police continued to investigate the disappearance of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, whose family says he was abducted Wednesday shortly before a charred body was found in a Jerusalem forest.
The family accused extremist Jews of killing him in revenge for the deaths of the three Israeli teens, who went missing on June 12 and whose bodies were found in a field in the West Bank on Monday. Hundreds of right-wing Jewish youths marched through downtown Jerusalem on Tuesday, vowing revenge.
The suspected killing ignited clashes in east Jerusalem between rock-throwing Palestinians and Israeli forces, who responded with stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets. The rioters set tires ablaze and torched three light-rail train shelters, leaving city streets covered in stones and debris.
Police were still trying to identify the body, but Abu Khdeir’s family set up a mourning tent near a mosque in east Jerusalem. Some 100 people crowded into the tent on Thursday to pay their condolences.
East Jerusalem was quiet Thursday morning but police said units were still patrolling the area. An Associated Press cameraman filmed Hebrew graffiti reading “death to Israel” and “death to Jews.”
Police said they were trying to pinpoint the motive behind the killing.
“The investigation is continuing in order to determine whether this was criminal or nationalistic,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
The incident elicited international condemnation and prompted calls for calm from Israeli leaders. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded a swift probe of the “reprehensible murder.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said it was clear extremist Jewish settlers were responsible for the death and called on Israel to bring the killers to justice.
Yaniv Zohar on the Israeli border with Gaza and Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem contributed reporting.