Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip lobbed crude homemade rockets at an Israeli town Monday, killing a 3-year-old boy and an Israeli man -- the first fatalities in an attack of this kind in 45 months of conflict.
The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, which targeted the working-class Negev desert town of Sderot, half a mile over the boundary between Gaza and Israel proper.
In recent years, Palestinian militants, mainly from the armed wing of Hamas, have fired hundreds of makeshift Kassam-2 rockets at Israeli communities and Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. But the primitive projectiles cannot be aimed with any degree of accuracy, and they usually fall harmlessly.
This time, however, one of the rockets slammed to earth near an Israeli child-care center, killing a nursery-school boy and a man who was passing by.
Hours later, Israeli troops took up positions in and around the village of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, an area that has consistently been used as a launch pad for such attacks. One Palestinian was killed overnight in exchanges of fire, the army said.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held emergency consultations with his security Cabinet -- a step that is often a prelude to a major military operation.
Violence directed at Israel by Gaza-based militants inevitably fuels debate over Sharon’s plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlements from Gaza. The prime minister reportedly told lawmakers in a closed-door session that he was determined to go ahead with the pullout and would attempt to speed the departure of settlers with an offer of immediate compensation if they leave.
The rocket attack in Sderot occurred less than 12 hours after Palestinian militants blew up an Israeli army outpost in Gaza late Sunday by packing an underground tunnel with explosives. Although the casualty toll was relatively light -- one soldier killed and five injured -- the incident provoked an outcry Monday, with politicians across the spectrum demanding to know why the army had not anticipated such a strike and taken measures to prevent it.
The rocket fell about 8 a.m., just as parents were dropping children off for a day at nursery school. Witnesses described a chaotic aftermath.
“As soon as I heard the noise -- boom! -- I ran outside, and everything was full of smoke,” said Mimi Shushan, a teacher’s assistant. “I saw the injured mother on her back, and the body of her child on top of her with one of his arms cut off.” Parents snatched up their children and fled, but not before many toddlers saw the bloody scene.
“At first, my little daughter thought the sound was a balloon that popped,” said Lizette Cohen Sharvit, her lips trembling. “Before this, we told her that Kassams only fall in fields and make noise, that they hurt no one.”
Authorities identified the dead child as Afik Zehavi, whose 4th birthday was approaching. His mother, Ruth, was in serious condition at an Israeli hospital. Also killed was Mordechai Yosopov, 49.
Seven other Israelis were injured, at least two seriously, according to hospital officials.
Sderot residents responded with grief and anger.
“I ask the prime minister, ‘Who’s taking care of our children? Who?’ No one!” the boy’s father, Itzik Ohayon, told Israel Radio.
Israel denounced the attack as “murderous” and said it would press ahead with strikes of its own against militants. After the blast at the army outpost, Israeli helicopters rocketed two weapons factories in Gaza City -- workshops like those where Israel says the Kassam rockets were manufactured. Helicopters hit two more workshops early today.
Monday night, Israeli forces demolished two unoccupied eight-story buildings close to the base that was targeted. The army said the buildings had been used by Palestinian guerrillas for surveillance of the outpost.
The Palestinian attacks raised fears that militants in Gaza would continue to inflict casualties with low-tech tactics that Israel’s army finds difficult to counteract.
“Even if they seem primitive, the Palestinian methods ... are pretty successful,” Col. Shmuel Zakai, an army commander in Gaza, told Israel Radio.
Special correspondent Tami Zer in Sderot contributed to this report.