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Israeli airstrikes answered with rockets

Times Staff Writer

An Israeli warplane blew up a minivan carrying senior Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, prompting a rocket blitz from the Palestinian enclave that killed a middle-age student on a college campus in southern Israel.

Four Palestinian civilians and 10 militants were killed in the escalation of aerial attacks, and the student’s death brought new pressure on the Israeli government to launch a full-scale ground offensive in the Hamas-ruled territory.

Rocket attacks by the Islamist group have been met with increasingly hawkish rhetoric from Israel in the six weeks since President Bush visited the region to promote peace talks between the Jewish state and the secular-led Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank.

But Israel has no way to intercept Hamas’ short-range rockets, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faces a range of unpalatable choices for stopping the attacks. They include a potentially risky cease-fire deal with Hamas and an invasion that could sabotage the struggling peace effort and inflict far heavier casualties on both sides.

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Olmert, speaking to reporters Wednesday in Japan, appeared to rule out a wider offensive in Gaza for now. But he warned that “no one in Hamas, neither the low-level officials nor the highest echelon, will be immune” from Israeli strikes.

Five camouflage-uniformed members of Hamas’ armed wing were killed when two missiles incinerated their white minivan in the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis.

Hamas said they included Omar abu Akar, 26, a senior engineer in the production of the homemade Kassam rockets fired almost daily at Israeli communities, and Aziz Masoud, 21, commander of a rocket-launching squad.

As Hamas was burying the five men, rockets began raining on Sderot and other Israeli border communities in the southern Negev Desert. By evening the army had counted more than 40 rockets, including one that struck harmlessly near a hospital in the city of Ashkelon.

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Another exploded in the parking lot of Sapir Academic College’s palm-shaded campus on the edge of Sderot, killing Roni Yichia. Shrapnel pierced the 47-year-old part-time student’s chest, Israeli officials said. Fellow students tried unsuccessfully to revive him.

Israeli television stations showed a second man with leg wounds being carried from the scene on a stretcher.

Separate Israeli airstrikes on rocket-launching sites in densely populated northern Gaza on Wednesday killed two other militants and three civilians, two of them teenage boys, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Three more militants died in airstrikes there early today.

Israeli missiles also hit Hamas government buildings, including the Interior Ministry headquarters in Gaza City. Shrapnel spraying from that strike killed a 6-month-old boy in a nearby residential building late Wednesday, the Health Ministry said.

Kassam rockets are wildly inaccurate, but militants have fired thousands of them from Gaza over the last seven years, disrupting life and fraying nerves on the Israeli side of the border. The Sderot fatality was the 13th in Israel caused by the rockets and the first since May.

A Hamas statement called the barrage retaliation for “the Zionist massacre” that killed “five of our best fighters.”

U.S. and Israeli officials have long worried that Hamas could undermine the peace talks launched in December. The militant movement, which advocates the Jewish state’s destruction, has the will and the weapons to hurt the initiative, the first substantive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since 2001.

Promoted by Bush with the hope of reaching an accord by the end of his term, the talks have produced little but discord. And they have been overshadowed by turmoil in Gaza.

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Neighbors of one of the militants in the minivan said he had recently returned from artillery training in Iran or Syria, slipping into Gaza from Egypt during a 12-day breach in a border wall that was blown up last month by Hamas militants.

“The Hamas terror endangers not only the lives of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, but also the peace and stability of the entire region,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday evening.

Pressure for a harsher response came Wednesday from right-wing parties outside Olmert’s broad coalition government and members of his own centrist Kadima party.

“The writing was on the wall,” said Yuval Steinitz, a member of parliament from the Likud party. “The question is whether to wait for a bigger tragedy or to launch an operation to eradicate the terror of the Kassams.”

Olmert has tried to weaken Hamas through diplomatic pressure, selective military strikes and a punishing economic embargo of the Gaza Strip that has drawn intense international criticism.

The Israeli leader, reluctant to go further, is wary that an invasion could backfire and benefit Hamas, which won parliamentary elections across the Palestinian territories two years ago and has considerable popular support in Gaza.

But Defense Minister Ehud Barak said this month that the military had been ordered to prepare plans for a ground assault.

“We are nearing the end of the army’s ability for restraint,” said David Tal, a Kadima lawmaker.

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Israel could stop the rockets by occupying launch zones across Gaza. But that would drag it back into a costly occupation of the territory, from which it withdrew military bases and settlements less than three years ago.

Hamas and smaller militant groups are believed to have 35,000 fighters among Gaza’s population of 1.5 million. Combat on that scale in crowded urban areas would bring heavy civilian and military casualties and make it impossible for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, notwithstanding his disdain for Hamas, to continue peace talks with Israel.

“Israel must not fall into the trap that Hamas is laying for us and march into Gaza,” Amos Oz, Israel’s best known writer, warned in a recent article. “The occupying forces will not have a single quiet day. Nor will Sderot.”

Israeli analysts say less drastic measures, such as intensifying the current operations or assassinating Hamas political leaders, might deter the attacks. But they would run the risk of prompting more suicide bombings in Israel, such as the one that killed an elderly woman in the city of Dimona this month.

Some Israeli officials have been pushing the idea of a cease-fire with Hamas.

“Israel can no longer count on good luck, hoping that the Kassams do not kill,” said former peace negotiator Yossi Beilin, a parliament member with the leftist Meretz party. He noted that Hamas leaders have called for an informal truce and that Egypt has included such a proposal in a diplomatic initiative that also seeks an Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange and reopening of the Gaza-Egypt border.

A cease-fire would face resistance in the Cabinet. Without tougher controls along the porous border with Egypt, calm in Gaza would allow Hamas to stockpile weapons with less interference. And a deal with Hamas would undermine Abbas, of the rival Fatah faction, just as Israeli and Western governments are trying to shore him up.

“If it were up to me, I would hit everything that moves with weapons and ammunition,” Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit told Army Radio on Wednesday.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.


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