Israelis respond to Gaza rockets

By Mark Lavie
Associated Press / February 2, 2009
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JERUSALEM - Israel threatened harsh retaliation after Gaza militants fired at least 10 rockets and mortar shells across the border yesterday, and warplanes later bombed the area where Hamas smuggles in weapons from Egypt through tunnels.

The flare-up raised the risk of intensifying violence in the days leading up to Israel's parliamentary elections on Feb. 10.

A late afternoon mortar barrage on the southern Israeli village of Nahal Oz, next to the Gaza border fence, wounded two soldiers and a civilian, the military and rescue services said. Earlier, a rocket landed near a kindergarten near Gaza, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

Late yesterday, Palestinians reported huge explosions as Israeli warplanes dropped bombs on the Egypt-Gaza border area, where Hamas operates tunnels to smuggle in weapons, food, and other goods, Palestinians said.

Israeli aircraft first flew over the area in southern Gaza setting off sonic booms. Residents said hundreds of people who work in the tunnels fled, then waited in the streets of Rafah, a Gaza border city, for the attacks to end so they could return.

The Israeli military said warplanes attacked six tunnels and also an unspecified Hamas post in northern Gaza. No casualties were reported from any of the bombings.

Since Israel ended its offensive in Gaza two weeks ago, rocket and mortar fire from the Palestinian territory has increased steadily. Israeli retaliation, including brief ground incursions and bombing runs aimed at rocket launchers and smuggling tunnels, is intensifying.

All three candidates to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the Feb. 10 vote leveled their own threats against Gaza's Hamas rulers yesterday.

Even before the mortars were fired on Nahal Oz, Olmert told his Cabinet that "if there is shooting at residents of the south, there will be an Israeli response that will be harsh and disproportionate by its nature."

Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu said Olmert's threat was an attempt by Israel to "find false pretexts to increase its aggression against the people" of Gaza.

Hamas has not taken responsibility for the new attacks, which have been claimed by smaller militant groups. But Israel says it holds Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since seizing power in June 2007, responsible for all attacks coming from there.

Israeli defense officials said they had not yet formulated a response to the strikes, but said a return to the offensive - in which Israeli tanks and infantry units penetrated deep into Gaza - was unlikely. Instead, they said Israel would consider airstrikes, including attempts to kill Hamas leaders. They spoke on condition of anonymity.

The three-week Israeli offensive left nearly 1,300 Palestinians dead, more than half of them civilians, according to Gaza officials. Thirteen Israelis were killed, including three civilians.

Olmert is in the last weeks of his term. He resigned in September over a string of corruption investigations. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, his Kadima Party's choice to succeed him, failed to put together an alternative government, forcing the upcoming election.

Two candidates for prime minister - Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Livni - are in the government, competing for credit for last month's Gaza offensive. The third, Benjamin Netanyahu of the hawkish Likud party, is leading in polls.

Livni told the Cabinet meeting that Israel hammered Gaza for three weeks to persuade Palestinian militants to stop their daily rocket barrages. With the resumption of the rocket attacks, she said, "the response must be harsh and immediate."

Netanyahu told reporters yesterday that Israel's response must be tough, and then Israel must work for "removal of the Hamas regime in Gaza, and removal of the threat of rockets [falling] on the suburbs of Tel Aviv."



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