Israelis keep up Gaza offensive
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli troops went after Palestinian militants in Gaza on Thursday as rockets slammed into southern Israel, but a planned meeting between a Hamas leader and Egyptian mediators raised hopes the violence could be contained.An attacker who appeared to be a female suicide bomber set off an explosion near Israeli soldiers in the northern Gaza Strip, the military said. There was no immediate word of Israeli casualties.Two Palestinian militants were killed in an airstrike in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, Palestinians said. The military confirmed it had carried out an attack.Two gunmen were killed earlier in clashes with the military in the town, militant groups said. Another man died later in a hospital, and officials said it was not clear whether he was a militant or a civilian.Various Arab and Western nations have been trying to get Israel and the Palestinians talking again. Chief among them has been Egypt, which is trying to broker a deal to free an Israeli soldier, whose June 25 capture by Hamas-linked militants touched off Israel’s 5-month-old Gaza offensive.Egypt is also involved in efforts to form a more moderate Palestinian government to replace the one led by the violently anti-Israel Hamas. The new government would include Hamas appointments, and the group’s radical political chief, Khaled Mashaal, would have to approve both the new Cabinet and an exchange deal.Mashaal was in Cairo “to discuss the Israeli soldier and the national unity government,” with Egyptian mediators Thursday, Moussa Abu Marzouk, Mashaal’s deputy, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from the exiled Hamas leadership’s base in Syria.It was his first to Egypt since early this year, raising hopes for progress.Mashaal, who has demanded Israel release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Cpl. Gilad Shalit, was expected to meet with the key figure in Egyptian mediation efforts, Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman, Abu Marzouk said. It was not known when the two would meet.Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah held another round of coalition talks with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas on Thursday.On Wednesday night, advisers to Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met to try to push ahead plans for a first working meeting between the two leaders. Abbas adviser Saeb Erekat said no date was set.Abbas has balked at meeting with Olmert without receiving assurances he would walk away from the talks with concrete results, such as the release of Palestinian prisoners.With diplomatic efforts still facing formidable obstacles, violence persisted.Israeli tanks rumbled up to an apartment complex on the outskirts of Beit Lahiya around dawn, security officials said. Troops fired bursts from turret-mounted machine guns, killing a militant and wounding another man, and then withdrew, they said. Hamas said the dead man was a member.The officials said militants had fired rockets into Israel from a field near the apartment complex overnight.A second militant from Islamic Jihad was killed by tank fire elsewhere in the town, the group said.The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.The army said Israeli troops in the same area saw a figure they deemed suspicious and opened fire, but think he escaped unharmed. It was not immediately clear if this was the same incident in which the Palestinian was killed.Israeli infantrymen were also operating inside Beit Lahiya on Thursday. Snipers took over a building overnight, security officials said, and militants fired two shoulder-launched rockets at them, setting the top floor on fire. Residents said helicopter gunships hovered overhead, and the Hamas TV station showed tanks moving through streets and army bulldozers leveling agricultural land just outside the town.The rockets, meanwhile, kept landing in southern Israel. Five were fired from Gaza, the army said, and four landed. No injuries were reported.Islamic Jihad announced Thursday that a longer-range rocket it is developing would soon be operational, but did not say when.Abu Hamza, a spokesman for the group, said the rocket was based on the Russian-made Katyusha, which Lebanese guerrillas fired at northern Israel during the summer war. The rocket has a range of 11 to 12 miles – about double the range of anything the militants have developed yet.In March, the group said it had “many” Russian-made rockets with a 11- to 19-mile range, smuggled into Gaza from Egypt. Islamic Jihad fired several of these rockets into Israel. But the Israeli military said at the time that they only traveled two to three miles into Israel.The militants’ rocket operations are exacting an increasingly heavy toll on Israelis living near the border with Gaza. Two civilians were killed over the past week, and the near-daily attacks have severely disrupted the lives of anxious residents.In all, 163 rockets have been launched from Gaza since the beginning of November, and 93 landed in Israeli territory, the army said. About 70 were launched in October, before Israel widened its operations against rocket squads.On Wednesday, Israel’s Security Cabinet of senior government officials resisted military pressure for a broad offensive in northern Gaza, though it did approve intensified action against wanted militants and attacks on Hamas operations in Gaza.