Rockets from Gaza strike deep into Israel
By BEN HUBBARD,Associated Press Writer AP - Saturday, November 15
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Hamas militants bombarded a major southern Israeli city with rocket fire Friday, unleashing their most powerful weapons yet in a week of tit-for-tat fighting that threatens to destroy a five-month-old cease-fire.
Both Israel and Gaza's Islamic militant Hamas rulers held out hope the calm would be restored, and Israeli leaders decided against any immediate major military action in retaliation. But the sides also vowed to strike hard at each other if violence persisted.
"If you want to leave the truce, we are ready. And if you want to continue it, then abide by it," Hamas strongman Mahmoud Zahar said in a Friday sermon.
The truce took effect last June, largely halting a cycle of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel and deadly Israel reprisals.
The cease-fire has mostly held, but began to deteriorate last week after an Israeli military raid on what the army said was a tunnel that militants planned to use for a cross-border raid. Eleven militants have been killed, and Palestinians have fired some 140 rockets and mortars from Gaza at Israel.
Israel also has shut Gaza's vital border crossings, blocking the entrance of food, humanitarian goods and fuel into the impoverished area.
Friday's rocket barrage was one of the heaviest yet. Nearly 20 rockets were fired into southern Israel, including four Grad-type Katyushas that landed in Ashkelon, some 17 miles north of Gaza. One woman in the southern Israeli town of Sderot was lightly injured by shrapnel, the army said.
It was the first time that rockets have reached Ashkelon in the current round of fighting.
The foreign-made Katyushas are believed to be smuggled into Gaza and have longer ranges than the crude homemade rockets usually fired by militants. With 120,000 people, Ashkelon is the biggest population center in rocket range, and Israel has responded harshly to past attacks on the coastal city.
But Israeli defense officials said the government had decided against any major military action for the time being unless the situation deteriorated. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified information.
The barrage came in response to an earlier Israeli airstrike that wounded two militants as they attempted to fire rockets. Hamas said the longer-range rockets were meant to show Israel what could expect if the truce collapses.
"We will keep protecting our soldiers and people and keep acting against attempts to interrupt the cease-fire, but if the other side will want or wish to keep the cease-fire alive, we'll consider it seriously," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak responded.
Mouin Rabbani, an independent analyst based in Jordan, said Hamas escalated its reaction to send a message to Israel that it cannot break the cease-fire without paying a price.
By sundown, the sides appeared to be pulling back, and the area settled into relative calm.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held an emergency meeting with Barak and other top security officials to discuss the situation. Afterward, Olmert indicated the border crossings would remain closed and military action would continue if necessary.
"The government pressure on Hamas will continue in connection to the operations of the crossings and other means," Olmert said.
Israel controls all of Gaza's official cargo crossings. Its decision to close the crossings last week has led to severe shortages of basic goods, caused the United Nations to suspend food aid distribution to tens of thousands of people. It also forced Gaza's only power plant to halt operations.
The shutdown has led to blackouts in parts of Gaza, though other areas still receive power directly from Egypt and Israel.
About 750,000 people in Gaza _ just over half the territory's population _ rely on the U.N. for food and the U.N. chief expressed concern.
"The secretary-general is concerned that food and other life-saving assistance is being denied to hundreds of thousands of people, and emphasizes that measures which increase the hardship and suffering of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip as a whole are unacceptable and should cease immediately," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement.
The sanctions also drew criticism Friday from the European Union.
"I call on Israel to reopen the crossings for humanitarian and commercial flows, in particular food and medicines," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said. "Fuel deliveries for the Gaza power plant should be resumed immediately."
Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction, has ruled Gaza since routing forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007. Israel continues to battle Hamas, while conducting peace talks with Abbas' government in the West Bank.
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