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Israel threatens retaliation for Gaza rocket fire

Israeli's PM threatened "harsh and disproportionate" retaliation after Gaza militants fired at least 10 rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel, wounding three people and raising the risk of fresh violence days ahead of elections.

world Updated: Feb 02, 2009 12:09 IST

Israeli's prime minister threatened "harsh and disproportionate" retaliation after Gaza militants fired at least 10 rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel on Sunday, wounding three people and raising the risk of fresh violence days ahead of elections.

Israel hit back late on Sunday, bombing the Gaza-Egypt border area where Hamas smuggles weapons through tunnels and the northern Gaza strip.

Since an unwritten truce ended Israel's 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.

A late afternoon mortar barrage on the 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. Even before the mortars hit Nahal Oz, Prime Minister Ehud 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 and Defense Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged Monday that the radical Islamic group was not directly behind most of the barrages. "We know that most of this fire is not from Hamas but from all kinds of small organizations," he told Israel Radio."But Hamas is responsible."

Hamas has ruled Gaza since seizing power in June 2007 and Israel holds it responsible for all attacks emanating from its territory. 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 because they were discussing classified security matters. Barak said Hamas received a very sharp blow in the previous 22-day Israeli onslaught.

"It could be that it will need to get another one," he told the radio.

Late on Sunday, Palestinians reported huge explosions as Israeli warplanes dropped bombs in the area of southern Gaza's border with Egypt, where Hamas operates tunnels to smuggle in weapons, food and other goods. No casualties were reported.

The Israeli military said warplanes attacked six tunnels and also an unspecified Hamas post at the northern end of the strip. Before the attack, Israeli aircraft flew over the area near the border town of Rafah, setting off sonic booms, and witnesses said hundreds of people who work in the tunnels there fled, along with residents. Earlier Palestinians said residents there received calls from the Israeli military, advising them to leave ahead of the airstrikes.

Residents said tunnel workers were waiting in Rafah streets for the attacks to end so they could get back to their positions. 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 chosen successor, failed to put together an alternative government, forcing the upcoming election. Two candidates for premier _ Barak and Livni _ are in the government, competing for credit for last month's bruising Gaza offensive. The third, front-runner Benjamin Netanyahu of the hawkish Likud Party, is sniping from the side.

Livni told the Cabinet meeting that Israel hammered Gaza for three weeks to persuade Palestinian militants to stop their daily rocket barrages. "At a certain point we stopped to see if they had got the very clear message that Israel will not accept fire at its civilians," she said, according to participants who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed. With the resumption of the rocket attacks, she said, "the response must be harsh and immediate."

Barak told the Cabinet that Israel would respond, but called for an end to "running off at the mouth" about the options, "even in an election season," according to a statement from his office. Netanyahu told reporters on Sunday 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."

Pre-election polls show Netanyahu with a lead over Livni, and Barak trailing badly.

Both Israel and Hamas have been talking to Egyptian mediators about a long-term truce. Israel wants an end to arms smuggling into Gaza from Egypt. Hamas wants Israel and Egypt to reopen Gaza's borders, which have been virtually sealed since Hamas seized power. Responding to Israel's concerns, US Army engineers arrived at the Gaza-Egypt frontier on Sunday to set up ground-penetrating radar to detect smuggling tunnels, an Egyptian security official said. Inside the Rafah terminal _ the gateway between Egypt and Gaza _ four army trucks loaded with wooden crates and drills could be seen accompanied by four US Army engineers. The Egyptian officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity.

In Cairo, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters he will not hold reconciliation talks with Hamas as long as the militant group rejects his authority. The two sides have been divided ever since Hamas seized Gaza. Abbas' Fatah rules the West Bank.

First Published: Feb 02, 2009 12:07 IST