Israel-Palestinian violence escalates
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli-Palestinian violence escalated dangerously Monday when Israel killed five militants in airstrikes and hinted Hamas political leaders could be their next target. A rocket fired from Gaza killed an Israeli woman, inviting a harsh response.The woman was the first Israeli to die in a Palestinian rocket attack since November.Even before the fatal salvo, Hamas leaders feared for their safety. They turned off their cell phones, stayed out of official vehicles and reduced their movements as militant groups declared a state of emergency.The precautions followed an Israeli airstrike late Sunday on the home of Hamas lawmaker Khalil al-Haya that killed eight people. Israel denied al-Haya, who was not there at the time, was the target. But Israel’s leaders said they would employ more drastic measures to stop daily barrages of rocket fire into Israel.On Monday, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at a car carrying four Islamic Jihad men, killing all of them. A spokesman for the group said they were targeted just after firing rockets into Israel.Islamic Jihad, which has carried out hundreds of rocket attacks and suicide bombings in recent years, threatened “earthshaking” revenge.Other airstrikes Monday killed a Hamas militant and hit suspected weapons-storage facilities, the Israeli army said. More than 40 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes since a decision last week to start hitting back for the rocket barrages.Late Monday, Israel imposed a closure on Gaza and the West Bank, banning Palestinians from entering Israel except in humanitarian cases. The military said the closure would be lifted Wednesday after a Jewish holiday, depending on the security situation.The Israeli strikes have not slowed the rockets. A new barrage slammed into the Israeli town of Sderot early Tuesday, lightly injuring two residents, the army said. Israel responded with two new airstrikes against buildings housing weapon depositories in central Gaza.The Hamas military wing said it fired 23 rockets Monday, including nine at Sderot.At sundown Monday, a Palestinian rocket hit a car and set it on fire in Sderot, about a mile from Gaza. The woman died en route to the hospital and two others were wounded in the attack. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.Deaths in rocket attacks often trigger a harsh Israeli response.Monday’s salvo came during a meeting in Sderot between Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief. They were not harmed.At a news conference in Sderot, Solana denounced the violence, and Livni called for international action “to put pressure on the terrorists and the Palestinian government and not compromise with terror.”Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Sderot late Monday for the second time in a week, his office said.David Baker, an Olmert aide who was in Sderot during the rocket attack, said “Israel is fully determined and fully prepared to take to the necessary actions to bring the Qassam (rocket) attacks to an end.”Angry Sderot residents demonstrated outside the building where Solana and Livni were meeting and later burned tires, saying the Israeli government has failed to protect them.Hamas pledged to “strike at the enemy anywhere in Palestine, whether with suicide attacks or operations against soldiers,” said the group’s military wing spokesman, Abu Obeida. Since 2000, Hamas has carried out dozens of suicide bombings in Israel, killing more than 250 people.The Israeli Security Cabinet decided Sunday to step up measures against militants, prompting calls to target the Hamas political leadership.”I say we have to put them all in the crosshairs,” Cabinet minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a retired army general, told Israel Radio.Government spokeswoman Miri Eisin pointedly did not rule out the possibility.”What was decided yesterday in the security meeting is that all terrorists, including those that plan attacks, call for attacks or carry out attacks, are not immune,” she said. “We cannot differentiate between those who call for attacks and those who carry out attacks.”Moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was making efforts to restore the cease-fire that greatly reduced Israel-Palestinian violence in Gaza from November until last week, said aide to Abbas, Saeb Erekat. He told The Associated Press that Abbas was calling on international mediators to press Israel to halt its strikes and on Hamas to stop the rocket salvos.In a statement, Abbas denounced the Israeli attacks but said he would work to restore calm.However, Livni rejected a new cease-fire, charging that “Hamas takes advantage of them” to prepare for new attacks.In 2004, at the height of Palestinian-Israeli violence, Israel killed the founder of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, in airstrikes just weeks apart. Israeli officials have claimed the assassinations frightened the Hamas leadership and caused a significant reduction in the group’s attacks, especially suicide bombings.Now, however, Hamas dominates the Palestinian government after sweeping to power in a 2006 election. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is the most visible Hamas political leader.He and other Hamas leaders attended a mass funeral Monday for the Palestinians killed in the airstrike next to al-Haya’s house. Addressing the crowd of tens of thousands, Haniyeh said they were being targeted “because you are supporters of resistance in Palestine.” He called on his people to persist “until we achieve either victory or martyrdom.”Later, Hamas leaders went at least partially underground, turning off their cell phones to avert detection by Israel, avoiding official vehicles and restricting their movements.”We have to be careful,” Hamas official Ayman Taha said.U.S. Ambassador Richard Jones urged Israel to do its best to avoid harming civilians.”We constantly urge Israel to target its response as closely as possible at those who are responsible for the actions, and to avoid innocent collateral damage,” he said.The Israeli operations appear to have helped cement a truce between Hamas and Fatah, which have clashed in Gaza over the past week.There was a feeling in Gaza that the Israeli retaliation was bringing the Palestinian factions together in the face of a common enemy – which might have been Hamas’ intention when it ratcheted up its rocket fire at Israel and attacked a Gaza-Israel border crossing last week.