Israel amassed military forces near Gaza after launching airstrikes on the besieged strip, as the burial for kidnapped and murdered Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was set for Friday after his body underwent an autopsy Thursday, his family and a police spokesman said.
Troops were sent south to the border with the Gaza Strip as Israel’s air force launched airstrikes against Hamas targets there Thursday in response to Palestinian cross-border rocket attacks.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said troops were taking up "defense positions" in Israeli communities that have been struck by the rockets from Gaza. He did not comment on the scale of the deployment.
"We are moving, and we have moved forces," Lerner said in a conference call with foreign journalists. "Everything we are doing is to de-escalate the situation but on the other hand to be prepared if they don't de-escalate."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said if Gaza rocket fire stopped, then Israel would also halt its actions. But he added in a speech that if "firing toward our residents in the south continues, then our bolstered forces there will act forcefully."
Abu Ubaida, spokesman for Hamas' armed wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, accused Israel at a news conference on Thursday of breaching a cease-fire brokered after a 2012 eight-day cross-border war and said the group would respond according to developments on the ground.
“The enemy may have the decision when to begin the battle, but he doesn’t decide its course or when it ends,” Ubaida said. “The enemy must know that what passed is a walk in the park compared to what’s coming.”
Ubaida alluded that the group’s rockets, which are usually unpredictable and have a short range, can hit targets in Israel that the government wouldn’t expect.
“Al-Qassam has become today an army of resistance that no force on this earth can break, because its [resistance] is the will of the people,” he added.
The Gaza Strip has been under strict blockade by Israel ever since it evacuated illegal settlements there in a process it called “disengagement.” Israel continues to impose severe restrictions on movement in and out of the territory, and remains in control of its air space and sea border.
At the news conference on Thursday, Ubaida also commented on Abu Khdeir’s murder saying, “The enemy’s crimes are ongoing, the last of which was the kidnapping and burning of the child."
Seventeen-year old Abu Khdeir was last seen alive on Wednesday being pushed into a van by what witnesses said appeared to be Israeli settlers near his home in Shuafat, near occupied East Jerusalem. His kidnapping and killing occurred one day after the burials of three Israeli teenagers, who were abducted on June 12 and later found dead. Many suspect Abu Khdeir's killing to be a revenge attack by right-wing Israelis — a group of which was marching through Jerusalem before Abu Khdeir’s murder chanting “Death to the Arabs.”
The teenager's funeral was supposed to take place Thursday, but a series of delays made it impossible.
The Palestinian pathologist who took part in the autopsy, Sabr al-Alul, was detained for an hour and a half at an Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron, Israeli news website Haaretz reported. Hebron has been under a military crackdown and closure since the three Israeli teens — who studied at a nearby Israeli settlement — went missing from a hitchhiking junction near the city.
When Alul finally arrived in Tel Aviv for the autopsy, the body could not be operated on because Israeli authorities said a new procedure had to be ordered — apparently because the original autopsy was ordered when the teen was still unidentified, and a new order needed to be issued now that his identity was confirmed, Haaretz reported.
The Abu Khdeir family has criticized Israeli authorities for the delays, saying they were imposed on purpose in order to allow police to better prepare for clashes likely to follow the funeral. The family has also criticized Israel’s investigation into the murder, saying it was not doing enough to bring the perpetrators to justice.
"We notified the police of the incident when it happened, but until now they haven't moved a muscle or arrested the kidnappers, despite their clear appearance in the surveillance cameras," Hussein Abu Khdeir, the boy’s father, told local Ma’an News.
"If things were different and an Arab kidnapped an Israeli, it would have been uncovered in moments."
Earlier Thursday, police clashed with a few dozen stone-throwing Palestinians in Shuafat and a police spokesman said six people were arrested, but the violence was on a much smaller scale than on Wednesday when 170 Palestinians, including six journalists, were injured.
Violence across the occupied territories has been on the rise since the three Israeli teens went missing earlier this month. Israel blamed the kidnappings and subsequent killings on Palestinian group Hamas, but has yet to provide evidence to back the charge.
At least six Palestinians were killed after Israel deployed thousands of soldiers into the occupied West Bank to search for the teens and “punish” Hamas for allegedly carrying out the crimes. During the crackdown, more than 500 Palestinians were arrested and 1,000 homes, offices and other buildings raided — often causing significant damage to property.
The teen’s bodies were discovered in an open field near Hebron on Monday.
Al Jazeera and wire services