Israel tightens security ahead of Sharon’s funeral

Israel beefed up security for former prime minister Ariel Sharon's funeral near the Gaza border on Monday and warned the enclave's Palestinian rulers not to allow rocket fire during the ceremony, which US Vice-President Joe Biden will attend.

Sharon died at the age of 85 on Saturday after eight years in a coma caused by a stroke. A memorial service will be held on Monday in Parliament in Jerusalem and an afternoon funeral near the Sharon family farm about 10km from Gaza.

The United States was among 18 countries to send delegations to the state ceremony for Sharon in Jerusalem. The White House said Biden would also travel to the burial at Sycamore Farm's Poppy Hill, in the southern Negev desert.

An Israeli security source said Israel "passed the message" to Gazan authorities to prevent any rocket fire during the funeral. Gaza is governed by Hamas Islamists who fought several times with Israel over the past few years.

"It was made clear to them that tomorrow would be a very bad day for anyone there to test Israel's patience," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

There was no immediate response from the Hamas government or other armed Palestinian factions. Egyptian officials, who in the past served as mediators between Israel and Gaza, were unavailable for comment.

Heightened tension
A Reuters correspondent heard two explosions in northern Gaza on Monday morning, which sounded like rocket impacts. An Israeli military spokesperson said there were no launches across the border. Israeli media said the blasts appeared to have resulted from Palestinian militants testing their weapons.

At times of heightened tension Israel steps up aerial patrols of Gaza with combat helicopters and drones designed to spot Palestinian rocket crews and hit them with guided missiles before they can carry out launches.

Security sources said Israel had deployed an Iron Dome rocket interceptor near Sycamore Farm, which has been hit by Gaza-launched rockets in the past.

The rockets are often inaccurate and carry small warheads, causing relatively little damage. When fired in salvoes they spread panic and paralyse routine life in south Israel.

Biden, Netanyahu to talk strategy
How to handle Gaza is among the sticking points in Israel's US-sponsored peace negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas's rival based in the occupied West Bank.

During his brief visit to Israel, Biden will discuss the so far fruitless diplomatic efforts with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, US officials said.

The vice-president will also seek to ease Netanyahu's concerns about world powers' interim nuclear deal with Israel's arch-foe Iran, which takes effect on January 20.

Biden is seen by Israel and its US supporters as one of its best friends in Washington in a career dating back to his decades on Capitol Hill, where he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before assuming the vice-presidency.

He led a US delegation to the funeral that included Congress members Eliot Engel of New York and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida. He was also accompanied by US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and former ambassador Daniel Kurtzer.

US President Barack Obama, who took office in 2009 and made his first presidential visit to Israel last year, did not come. The only trip of his presidency to pay his respects to a foreign leader was last month, when he and first lady Michelle Obama went to South Africa to attend a memorial service for former president Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon he hailed as an inspiration for his own career in public service.

Biden, who has held talks with more than half a dozen Israeli prime ministers over the years, last met Sharon in 2005.

Bracing for surprises
Israel's Army Radio said there had been no intelligence indications that Palestinians were planning to shell Sharon's funeral. Yet authorities braced for any surprise.

"We are taking the full range of possible scenarios into account," southern police commander Yoram Halevy told the station. "The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] is prepared, informed and ready to respond if so required."

Since a 2012 eight-day war with Israel, which killed some 170 Palestinians and six Israelis, Hamas has largely held fire but smaller militant groups have occasionally challenged its authority with their own rocket attacks into the Jewish state. – Reuters

Matt Spetalnick
Matt Spetalnick works from Washington. Reuters Washington Correspondent Foreign Policy/National Security/White House Matt Spetalnick has over 2753 followers on Twitter.

Workers’ R60m ‘lost’ in banks scam

An asset manager, VBS Mutual Bank and a Namibian bank have put the retirement funds of 26 000 municipal workers in South Africa at risk

‘Judge President Hlophe tried to influence allocation of judges to...

Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath accuses Hlophe of attempting to influence her to allocate the case to judges he perceived as ‘favourably disposed’ to former president Jacob Zuma

SAA grounds flights due to low demand

SAA is working to accommodate customers on its sister airlines after it cancelled flights due to low demand

Lekwa municipality won’t answer questions about why children died in...

Three children are dead. More than a dozen homes have been gutted by fires in the past six months. And, as...

Press Releases

MTN unveils TikTok bundles

Customised MTN TikTok data bundles are available to all prepaid customers on *136*2#.

Marketers need to reinvent themselves

Marketing is an exciting discipline, offering the perfect fit for individuals who are equally interested in business, human dynamics and strategic thinking. But the...

Upskill yourself to land your dream job in 2020

If you received admission to an IIE Higher Certificate qualification, once you have graduated, you can articulate to an IIE Diploma and then IIE Bachelor's degree at IIE Rosebank College.

South Africans unsure of what to expect in 2020

Almost half (49%) of South Africans, 15 years and older, agree or strongly agree that they view 2020 with optimism.

KZN teacher educators jet off to Columbia University

A group of academics were selected as participants of the programme focused on PhD completion, mobility, supervision capacity development and the generation of high-impact research.

New-style star accretion bursts dazzle astronomers

Associate Professor James O Chibueze and Dr SP van den Heever are part of an international team of astronomers studying the G358-MM1 high-mass protostar.

2020 risk outlook: Use GRC to build resilience

GRC activities can be used profitably to develop an integrated risk picture and response, says ContinuitySA.

MTN voted best mobile network

An independent report found MTN to be the best mobile network in SA in the fourth quarter of 2019.