|A woman tried to comfort a child yesterday after a Palestinian rocket fired from Gaza hit a kibbutz in southern Israel. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)|
JERUSALEM - Hamas militants fired a rocket into an Israeli border village yesterday, wounding two young sisters as they played outside their home. The attack followed Israeli strikes against Gaza militants and threats of an "all-front" war on the Islamic group.
Israel responded with more air strikes and a ground raid early today, killing six militants.
The rapid-fire events threatened to escalate into large-scale combat that could derail US-led Mideast peace efforts.
Hamas stepped up its rocket barrages on southern Israel for a second day, retaliating for an Israeli strike that killed seven of its police officers. More than a dozen rockets rained down, one exploding at Kibbutz Beeri, a communal village about 4 miles from the border fence.
Two sisters, ages 12 and 2, suffered minor injuries as they played in their yard, police said. Their mother was taken to a hospital for shock.
Israel unleashed an intensified air campaign after Hamas claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing Monday that killed a woman in southern Israel. It was the first such Hamas attack in Israel in more than three years.
Overnight, Israeli aircraft fired at militants who had launched rockets moments before, the military said. Hamas said four of its men were wounded.
Israeli aircraft hit a metal workshop in Gaza city after nightfall last night, Hamas said. No one was hurt. A few minutes later, aircraft targeted a Hamas car in southern Gaza; there were no reports of injuries. The Israeli military confirmed that it carried out two air strikes.
Before dawn today, Israeli ground forces backed by warplanes exchanged fire with Hamas gunmen in Gaza. Five Hamas men were killed, three by missiles and two by gunfire, said Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas's military wing. Two were field commanders, he said. The Islamic Jihad faction said one of its militants also died in the clash. Palestinian medics confirmed that six bodies were removed from the area.
The surge in fighting threatened to overwhelm peacemaking efforts in an avalanche of rocket attacks, reprisals, and bombings.
A poll released yesterday indicated that Hamas was jumping in popularity for breaking down a border wall with Egypt on Jan. 23, allowing Gaza's quarantined people a 12-day taste of freedom before Egypt closed the breaches Sunday.
Israel yesterday approved the construction of a fence along the 150-mile desert border with Egypt, fearing that Palestinian militants who crossed from Gaza into Egypt could infiltrate Israel.
The issue has arisen several times since the border was established in 1982. Most recently, Israel pledged to build a border fence in early 2007, after a suicide bomber infiltrated from Egypt and killed three Israelis in the southern port of Eilat.
At first, Israel assumed the bomber who hit the southern town of Dimona on Monday came in from Egypt, but Hamas identified the bombers as militants from the West Bank city of Hebron.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official, defended the suicide bombing. "There is no choice, no option for our people, but to resist the occupation and defend themselves by all possible means," he said.