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Israel readies troops along Gaza border

Military action follows round of rocket attacks

jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli tanks were poised at the border of the Gaza Strip on Thursday in what was called a defensive tactic/

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military mobilized troops around the Gaza Strip on Thursday after Palestinian militants there fired some 30 rockets at southern Israel over 24 hours, three of which hit homes in the border town of Sderot, causing property damage but no injuries.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said that despite the mobilization, Israel was not interested in further escalating the violent exchanges with Gaza that have been building for more than two weeks.

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Overnight Wednesday, 15 Israeli airstrikes hit sites the military said were associated with Hamas, the Islamist militant group that dominates Gaza; Palestinian health officials said 10 people were wounded, including a pregnant woman and a 65-year-old man.

“We are moving, and we have moved, forces to serve defensive activities and forward preparations,” Lerner told reporters on a conference call.

“The main issue is how Hamas is reading the situation,” he added. “We don’t want to take it further, but we will be prepared for the developments.”

The deteriorating situation in the south comes against the backdrop of heightened tensions in Jerusalem, where the burned body of a 16-year-old Palestinian, Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, was found in a Jerusalem forest Wednesday. Muhammad had been forced into a vehicle near his East Jerusalem home about an hour before his body was discovered, and the police are investigating whether he was killed in retaliation for the death of three Israeli teenagers who were buried Tuesday after being kidnapped in the occupied West Bank last month.

Khaled Meshal, the political leader of Hamas, said in an interview from Qatar, published Wednesday, that the organization was also not interested in an escalation. But a Gaza-based Hamas leader said Thursday that the group was having trouble convincing other militants to hold their fire.

“In general, there was an agreement to calm the situation,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of internal politics. “We are communicating with the factions to stop them from firing rockets, but the justification is always, ‘Look at what the Israelis are doing in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.’ ”

Authorities were also scrambling to investigate a possible third kidnapping Thursday afternoon, after a girl called a police hotline from near Maalot, a city in northern Israel, a police spokesman said.

“She said that she was abducted and then the line went dead,” said Micky Rosenfeld, the spokesman. “We’re searching the area. Helicopters are trying to track. We’ll see what’s going on there.”

Muhammad’s abduction and killing set off fierce riots in parts of East Jerusalem that stretched into Wednesday night, and there were fears that his funeral could stir broader unrest.

Hamas spokesmen warned Israel would pay a heavy price in a war.

Mohammed Salem.REUTERS

Hamas spokesmen warned Israel would pay a heavy price in a war.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority had “been making extensive international contacts” since Muhammad’s death and would convene a meeting of the Palestinian leadership Thursday to consider, among other things, joining more UN institutions.

In Shuafat, the relatively well-to-do neighborhood where Muhammad lived, Palestinians from across Jerusalem huddled Thursday on plastic chairs under a canopy outside his home, waiting for Israeli authorities to release Muhammad’s body after an autopsy.

As the crowd of mourners swelled into the hundreds, Ishak Abu Khdeir, Muhammad’s uncle, said that the family would not accept the body until it received a clear declaration that the killing was an act of revenge by Jews and not the result of a family dispute.

“We want a written paper from the Israeli government saying the crime was committed on a national background,” Abu Khdeir told reporters. Asked what the family would do if forced to wait days or even a week, given the Muslim tradition of immediate burial, he said, “So be it.”

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