Israel and Hamas militants clash as Palestinian divisions deepen | VailDaily.com
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Israel and Hamas militants clash as Palestinian divisions deepen

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – An Israeli airstrike killed two Hamas militants Sunday and Palestinian militants bombarded southern Israel with homemade rockets as a 16-month-old cease-fire unraveled and the two sides moved closer toward a broader conflict.The violence complicated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ efforts to persuade the Hamas-led government to endorse a document implicitly recognizing Israel. In a new blow to Abbas, a Hamas prisoner who helped draft the proposal withdrew his name from the document, deepening internal Palestinian divisions ahead of a July 26 referendum on the plan.Hamas militants called off the truce late Friday after Israel assassinated a leading commander in the Hamas-run security forces and an explosion blamed on Israeli artillery fire killed eight Palestinian beachgoers.Hamas has largely honored the February 2005 cease-fire, and the group’s latest statements raised concerns it could carry out a new wave of attacks. In the 4 1/2 years before the cease-fire, Hamas suicide bombers killed more than 250 Israelis, according to Israeli officials.But Hamas has less maneuvering room as a governing power than it did as a mere militia. Open confrontation with Israel would deepen its isolation at a time it is struggling to overcome a crippling international aid boycott.”The only reason right now for the Hamas to try and send a more moderate message is the pressure from the international community,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told The Associated Press. “It is important that the international community will continue with this pressure.”Palestinian militants fired more than 30 homemade rockets toward the southern Israeli town of Sderot, including one that hit a school and critically wounded a man, hospital officials said. A second man was lightly wounded from another rocket, officials said.Hamas claimed responsibility for most of the rockets. “We have decided to make Sderot a ghost town,” said Abu Ubeideh, a spokesman for the group’s military wing.Residents of Sderot demanded the government protect them, and city authorities called off school. Late Sunday, several hundred people demonstrated outside the home of Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who lives in the town.Peretz later hinted Israel could begin targeting Hamas political figures if the rocket fire continued. “No organization, no status will serve as cover for any source that is involved in planning or carrying out shooting,” he said after visiting the wounded man.Israel killed Hamas’ founder and dozens of other members in fighting before the cease-fire.While Israel has halted artillery fire against rocket-launching operations as it investigates Friday’s shelling of the beach, it continues more accurate air attacks.An airstrike early Sunday killed two Hamas militants in northern Gaza, the group said. Another Hamas militant narrowly escaped harm later when he jumped out of his car shortly before it was destroyed by an Israeli missile, the group said.The army said both airstrikes were aimed at militants carrying out rocket attacks.Friday’s beach explosion occurred as Israel artillery fired at militants in northern Gaza. Palestinians immediately blamed Israel, and images of a distraught girl crying in agony after the explosion inflamed Palestinian public opinion.Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed “deep sorrow” at the deaths on the beach and insisted Sunday the military “never had a policy of striking civilians.”Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, head of Israel’s southern command, said an investigation into the explosion had raised questions about whether Israel was involved. He said the probe was continuing.He said Israeli forces that had been attacking suspected rocket-launching sites in northern Gaza halted artillery fire eight minutes before the “commotion” on the beach. “This fact makes us suspicious that this was not caused by Israeli army fire,” he said.He suggested Palestinian militants might have been caused the blast.The heightening of Israeli-Palestinian tensions has coincided with attempts by Abbas to persuade the Hamas government to endorse a document calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.Accepting the plan would require Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, to effectively recognize the Jewish state. Abbas, a moderate who leads the rival Fatah party, has endorsed the plan as a way to lift international sanctions.Hamas defeated Fatah in January legislative elections and now controls the parliament and Cabinet.With Hamas refusing to accept the plan, Abbas has ordered the July 26 referendum. Polls before Friday’s blast indicated the Palestinian public widely supports the plan, and a referendum could raise pressure on Hamas to moderate.The document was drafted by senior Fatah and Hamas militants imprisoned by Israel. The prisoners enjoy great clout in Palestinian society.In a setback for Abbas, the Hamas prisoner who helped draft the proposal withdrew his name from the document Sunday. Abdel Khaleq Natche accused Abbas of exploiting the document for political gain.”The document now is completely a Fatah document,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, who read the statement on behalf of Natche and Bassem al-Saadi, a top Islamic Jihad prisoner who also signed the document.Hamas has repeatedly said it opposes the referendum. It has demanded further dialogue with Abbas in hopes of bridging their differences over the plan.Abbas met with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas in Gaza for a second straight night Sunday but failed to reach an agreement. Officials said the talks would continue Monday.The Hamas-dominated parliament planned to challenge the legality of Abbas’ referendum decree Monday, but it was unclear whether Hamas could muster the necessary two-thirds majority.Vail, Colorado


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