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Israel bolsters forces along volatile Gaza border

By Tia Goldenberg

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, July 3 2014 10:27 a.m. MDT

Avihai Giorno stands in his bedroom by a wedding photo of him and is wife Tammy after a rocket fired by Palestinian militants in Gaza, landed in the southern town of Sderot Thursday, July 3, 2014. Israeli military carried out airstrikes on the Gaza Strip after Palestinian militants fired rockets into Israel early Thursday. The Israeli military said the air force struck 15 "terror sites" in Gaza. "The targets included weapons manufacturing sites as well as training facilities," a military spokesman said.

Tsafrir Abayov, Associated Press

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military bolstered forces along the volatile border with the Gaza Strip on Thursday in response to intensifying rocket fire as tensions remained high over the deaths of three Israeli teenagers and an Arab youth who Palestinians allege was killed in a revenge attack.

In one location, soldiers ran across a field in a training exercise. At a nearby base, soldiers arrived on a bus and unloaded their equipment. The troop movement was "defensive" but Israel remained prepared for any additional violence from the Palestinian territory, military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said.

"Everything we are doing is to de-escalate the situation but on the other hand be prepared for actions that can develop if they do not de-escalate," Lerner said.

Israeli defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under military guidelines, said the deployment included tanks, artillery and ground forces. Israel's last major operation in Gaza, a territory controlled by the Hamas militant group, took place in late 2012.

In Gaza, two senior Hamas officials said the group has "no interest" in any kind of escalation and hoped the cease-fire that ended the 2012 fighting could be restored. But they warned that rocket fire would continue until Israel halts its attacks on Gaza.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing ongoing diplomatic efforts, said they had sent messages to Israel through outside mediators but had been rebuffed.

"Israel has been attacking Gaza since the kidnapping of the teens," one official said. "Once Israel stops attacking Gaza, we are willing to immediately preserve the truce."

Israel has accused Hamas of being behind those 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. Hamas praised the abduction of the teens but has denied responsibility.

In east Jerusalem, meanwhile, clashes resumed as several dozen masked Palestinian youths stood behind a large garbage bin and hurled stones and firebombs toward Israeli security forces. Police responded with stun grenades and tear gas, but largely kept their distance. No injuries were reported.

The violence erupted Wednesday after a 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was abducted and a charred body — believed to be the boy — was found in a Jerusalem forest.

The family has blamed extremist Jews for killing him in revenge for the deaths of the three Israeli teens, whose bodies were found in a field in the West Bank on Monday after a more than two-week search.

The suspected revenge killing ignited heavy clashes Wednesday in east Jerusalem between rock-throwing Palestinians and Israeli forces. 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 officially identify the body at a forensics lab, and an investigation into the killing continued. But Abu Khdeir's family set up a mourning tent near a mosque in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat. Some 100 people crowded into the tent, including the grand mufti of Jerusalem, the area's top Muslim cleric, to pay their condolences.

Abu Khdeir's family distributed freshly printed posters mourning his death. The posters showed his child-like face and described him as a "brave martyr." Relatives said they were preparing a funeral but still waiting to receive his body.

Standing alongside the mufti, the teen's father, Hussein Abu Khdeir, angrily compared his son to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

"This crime is like how the Germans burned the Jews. And today, the Jews are burning us," he said. "They are now like the Nazis, the new Nazis."

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