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Israeli airstrike kills 2 militants in Gaza

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- An Israeli airstrike killed two members of the Hamas military wing in the northern Gaza Strip early yesterday, and two Qassam rockets fired by militants from Gaza landed in the Israeli border town of Sderot and a nearby village, causing no casualties.

The Israeli army said that another airstrike was aimed at a vehicle carrying weapons in northern Gaza early yesterday, with no casualties reported, and that a small ground force entered Gaza and arrested four armed Hamas militants, taking them to Israel for questioning.

The relative calm followed four days of heightened violence during which 39 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, according to hospital officials in Gaza. At least six were civilians.

The Israeli military said its actions were aimed at distancing "terrorist organizations, particularly Hamas," from the border fence, and at reducing rocket fire into Israel. More than 130 rockets were fired at Israel in the past week, the army said, with about half actually landing in Israel.

A U.N. official in Geneva condemned Israel's actions yesterday, particularly the bombing on Friday of an empty Hamas Interior Ministry building in a Gaza City neighborhood. Shrapnel from the missile strike killed a woman and wounded up to 46 people, some of them children, who were celebrating at a wedding party next door.

The official, John Dugard, who works on human rights in the Palestinian territories, said the Israelis who were responsible "for such cowardly action" resulting in civilian casualties "are guilty of serious war crimes and should be prosecuted and punished for their crimes." He said the attack on the building "near a wedding party venue" was carried out "with what must have been foreseen loss of life and injury to many civilians."

An Israeli army spokeswoman said Israel "had attacked a Hamas headquarters," and nothing else, in the raid. In response to some of the earlier civilian deaths, military officials said that Israel attacked only militants but that they often operated from civilian areas in Gaza, while the rocket fire from Gaza was directed at Israeli civilian centers.

Dugard also criticized Israel's closure of its border crossings with Gaza, saying its actions violate "the strict prohibition on collective punishment contained in the Fourth Geneva Convention."

Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, said late Thursday that the crossings between Gaza and Israel would be sealed for a few days to all traffic, except for essential supplies and emergency cases, as an additional measure to press Hamas into stopping the rocket fire.

Gaza's population of 1.5 million depends on imports for most basic supplies, and Hamas called on Egypt yesterday to open the Rafah crossing on its border with Gaza to allow in goods. The Rafah crossing has been officially closed since Hamas seized control of the strip in June, after the European mission monitoring the area left.

The Rafah crossing had previously been used for passenger traffic only. Hamas and Egypt have opened the crossing briefly on a few occasions, most recently to permit about 2,000 Palestinians to make the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Israeli officials said Hamas exploited such occasions to bring weapons and money into Gaza.

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