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Israelis retaliate for rocket attack


JERUSALEM -- Two Hamas militants were killed in an Israeli airstrike yesterday in the northern Gaza Strip after the Palestinian group claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on southern Israel that left an Israeli severely injured.

Israel's military said its aircraft targeted fighters who were preparing to launch a Kassam rocket. Militants fired more than two dozen salvos during a day of stepped-up violence.

One of the projectiles hit a college campus in Sederot, an Israeli town that is frequently the target of Palestinian rockets, and wounded a 60-year-old worker. Though militants regularly fire primitive rockets over the border, relatively few such attacks have resulted in injuries.

The two militants that were killed were members of the military wing of Hamas, which had resumed rocket strikes against Israel a day earlier. The radical Islamic group, which now controls the Palestinian government, had largely abided by a conditional cease-fire since early last year but declared it over Friday after blaming Israel for an explosion that killed eight Palestinian civilians on a Gaza Strip beach.

Hamas militants vowed yesterday to continue attacks against Sederot, which sits two miles from the Gaza border and is the hometown of Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

"We will turn Sederot into a ghost town," said a spokesman for the Hamas militants who is known as Abu Obeida.

Israeli officials appointed a committee to investigate Friday's beach explosion, which they said might have been the result of an errant artillery shell. While Israeli leaders expressed regret for the deaths, they also suggested that the blast might have had another cause, such as a bomb planted by Palestinian fighters or a Kassam rocket that went off course.

The Israeli military, which had fired several artillery rounds into the area near the beach before the explosion was reported, has halted shelling until the investigation is complete.

Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, who heads the Israeli military's southern command, told Army Radio that there were increasing signs that the explosion was not Israel's fault. He warned Hamas against escalating violence and did not rule out an Israeli ground operation into the Gaza Strip in an effort to stop the rocket attacks. Israel withdrew its soldiers from Gaza last summer after closing all 21 Jewish settlements there.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed "deep regret" over the deaths. However, he said that his nation's military does not target civilians but Palestinian rockets are aimed at Israeli civilians.

"For many weeks, Kassam rockets, which are designed to maim and kill Israelis who live in nearby communities, have been fired from the Gaza Strip. This firing is very serious. It strikes at the fabric of life in communities in southern Israel and threatens peoples' lives," Olmert said.

Olmert made his comments during a weekly Cabinet meeting before departing for a visit to Britain and France amid concerns of violence at home.

Israeli police were on heightened alert after the threats by Hamas, which was responsible for scores of Israeli deaths during a campaign of suicide bombings and other attacks before it signed on to the cease-fire agreement 16 months ago.

In Sederot, classes were canceled yesterday amid fears of new rocket attacks.

Batya Katar, who heads the Sederot parents association, said the Israeli government had done too little to protect the town.

"We are putting Sederot up for sale," Katar told Israel Radio in comments that reflected residents' heightened anxiety. "We don't want to live here anymore. We want to live just like any other place in the country."

The flare-up in violence comes as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas are at loggerheads over his plan for a referendum July 26 on a proposal for Palestinian statehood that implicitly recognizes Israel's right to exist. Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, views the vote as a challenge to its rule by the president and his Fatah movement.

Abbas was to continue talks with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah, a member of Hamas, in an effort to iron out differences. The referendum is based on a political plan written by well-known Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, but two signers from Hamas and Islamic Jihad said yesterday that they were removing their names from the document in protest against the scheduled vote.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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