Israeli airstrikes target Hamas
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel targeted Hamas with three airstrikes Thursday, destroying a compound and a car carrying senior commanders of the Islamic group and killing three people in a new layer of violence added to Palestinian infighting that has paralyzed the Gaza Strip.
All of the strikes were in Gaza City, where 22 Palestinians were killed on Wednesday in the most widespread factional fighting in nearly a year between Hamas and the rival Fatah.
The raging street battles have turned the densely populated seaside city into a war zone and endangered the Palestinian unity government.
A new cease-fire between the warring Palestinian parties sharply reduced the infighting Thursday. But by midafternoon, three people had been killed in new factional clashes.
The army confirmed all of the airstrikes, which came after Israel threatened “harsh” action in response to repeated Palestinian rocket attacks. More than 50 rockets have fallen on the Israeli town of Sderot, near Gaza, in the last three days.
Hamas said the first strike targeted an administration building of its elite bodyguards unit. The two-story structure is normally filled with Hamas personnel. One person was killed and 45 were injured, Palestinian witnesses and medical officials said.
The second hit a Palestinian car carrying two senior Hamas commanders, killing one and wounding the other, Hamas said. It did not identify them. The army said that airstrike had targeted a Palestinian rocket squad. The second strike came about two hours after the first.
The third airstrike targeted a trailer housing security guards of a senior Hamas official, killing a Hamas militant and injuring eight people, medical officials said. The strike was in the Sheik Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City, considered a Hamas stronghold.
“Israel will defend our citizens. We will actively stop rockets, rocket launchers, those who plan the terror infrastructure,” said Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin. She repeated Israel’s vow not to be drawn into the Gaza morass, but the heavy airstrike raised questions about the commitment.
The explosion at the Hamas compound sent heavy plumes of gray smoke into the sky. The structure and several others around it were destroyed and terrified residents fled.
After the blast, a large crowd gathered at the site, frantically digging through the rubble and pulling out the wounded. One woman, her white robe covered in blood, was carried away.
A military statement said that following rocket salvos and other attacks by Hamas, Israel carried out “an aerial attack against a Hamas terrorist headquarters in Gaza City.”
In a text message to reporters, Hamas military wing spokesman Abu Obeida vowed revenge against Israel, possibly by suicide bombing.
“The Zionist enemy are launching an open war against Hamas. Therefore, reprisal options are open, including self-sacrifice operations,” he said. “We advise the Zionist settlers to go immediately to the basement of their residence because our rockets will not spare any of them.”
Hamas called on all its members to take extra precautions “because everyone is targeted” by Israel, including senior leaders.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas postponed a planned visit to the Gaza Strip from his West Bank headquarters after the latest violence, officials said.
Officials in Abbas’ office said the trip would be delayed by at least a day, but gave no firm time. They said he was determined to travel to Gaza.
“The reason for the trip is to stop the fighting,” said his aide, Saeb Erekat. He said the talks would focus on Abbas’ plan to end the infighting and chaos plaguing Gaza. “This is to preserve our social fabric, our society, our internal peace,” he said. “Without this, we’re doomed.”
Sporadic gunfire could be heard in Gaza City on Thursday. But it was nowhere near as intense as Wednesday, when masked gunmen engaged in fierce battles and took over otherwise deserted streets, trapping frightening residents in their homes.
Gaza residents took advantage of the lull to stock up on bread, bottled water, diapers and other basic supplies.
Ghassan Abu al-Qas, a grocery store owner, said business was brisk.
“I have run out of cigarettes and I’m almost out of mineral water. I don’t have many diapers left,” he said. The only item that wasn’t selling was newspapers, he said. “No one has asked to buy newspapers,” he said.
But streets were still relatively quiet, and few cars were out because of the large number of roadblocks. At one point, gunfire forced a team of electric workers to halt repairs on power lines, leaving parts of Gaza City without power for a third day.
Nearly 50 people have been killed since Sunday in Palestinian infighting, which has included the most ferocious battles in more than a year of factional clashes. The violence has left the two-month-old Palestinian unity government on the brink of collapse.
In Thursday’s violence, gunfire erupted at a Hamas funeral procession, killing two people and wounding 14 others, Palestinian medical officials said.
The funeral was for two Hamas fighters killed during Wednesday’s factional violence. Witnesses said members of the procession were firing their weapons into the air – a custom at Palestinian funerals – when members of a Fatah security force based in a nearby building began firing. The two sides accused each other of starting the battle.
In Gaza City, Hamas said one of its men was kidnapped and executed by security forces loyal to Fatah. There was no comment from Fatah.
The violence has left the fragile unity government in tatters, though Fatah and Hamas leaders have said they hope to preserve the coalition. A main goal of the alliance, formed in March, was to halt months of factional violence, but the unity deal never addressed a key area of dispute – control over Palestinian security forces.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II told a gathering of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian peace activists he was “very concerned” by the wave of inter-Palestinian fighting in Gaza and warned that more will follow unless progress is made in the peace process.
Associated Press Writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Aqaba, Jordan, contributed to this report.