GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired a Katyusha rocket 10 1/2 miles into Israel yesterday, their deepest artillery strike yet, provoking some of the heaviest Israeli assaults in months. Nine Palestinians were killed in the day's fighting.
The rocket landed harmlessly north of the coastal city of Ashkelon. An Israeli tank and helicopter offensive that was already under way in Gaza quickly intensified, targeting suspected arms depots and the homes and hide-outs of militants, who fired back with grenade launchers and automatic rifles.
Palestinian medical workers said three of those killed were civilians - the mother, sister and brother of a militant from the Islamic Jihad group, who also died when a tank shell tore through their home in the city of Khan Yunis. Israel said it was responding to gunfire from the house.
More than 30 Palestinians, including five children, were reported wounded as the fighting spread from Khan Yunis to Gaza City and Rafah.
A Palestinian Authority spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, called the Israeli offensive "a bloody message" that could tarnish President Bush's visit to the region next week. Bush is coming to measure progress in peace talks that he launched between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in November at a conference in Annapolis.
"They are killing the spirit of Annapolis," Abu Rudeineh said.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the army operations were defensive, aimed at stopping rocket fire from Gaza. The coastal strip is ruled by the militant Hamas movement, which advocates Israel's destruction and is not involved in the peace talks.
Until recent weeks, all of the rockets fired from Gaza were homemade Kassams, wildly inaccurate and incapable of reaching much beyond the Israeli border town of Sederot, which has a population of about 20,000. Kassams and mortar strikes from Gaza have killed 12 Israelis in the past six years.
Israeli officials said the recent introduction of imported, more powerful Katyushas into the Palestinian arsenal marked an escalation of the conflict.
Yesterday's Katyusha strike was among the first launched from Gaza and, Regev said, the deepest into Israel. The 122 millimeter rockets carry warheads of up to 66 pounds and have a 19-mile range, putting 250,000 residents of southern Israel in the firing line, he said.
The militant group Hezbollah rained thousands of Katyusha rockets on cities in northern Israel during the 2006 Lebanon war. Israeli officials said those rockets had been sent by Iran through Syria and the ones reaching Gaza were passing through Egypt's border with Gaza.
"If that porous border remains porous, we will soon see a new strategic reality, a situation that for Israel is unsustainable," Regev said, repeating Israeli criticism that Egypt is doing little to stop Palestinian weapons smuggling.
Palestinian militant groups rushed to portray the Katyusha strike as their own.
Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees claimed responsibility in a joint statement that promised deeper strikes into Israel. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command issued a rival claim and a videotape purporting to show the rocket launch.
The Israeli offensive targeted those groups as well as the armed wing of Hamas.
Rushdi abu Alouf and Richard Boudreaux write for the Los Angeles Times.