Israel bombards Gaza – and threatens worse

Rocket strike provokes biggest attack in occupied territory for 15 months
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The Independent Online

Israel yesterday threatened to launch a second military offensive in Gaza, just hours after its jets and helicopters pounded the coastal enclave in response to the firing of a Qassam rocket by militants in the strip.

The Israeli military said it had successfully hit four targets across Gaza in the early hours of yesterday morning – two weapons-manufacturing plants and two arms caches.

Eyewitnesses in Gaza said there were at least seven strikes, and a cheese factory, a film studio and metal workshop in the central refugee camp of Nuseirat had been hit. Hospital officials said three Palestinian children had been injured after being hit by flying debris.

The Qassam rocket, which prompted the aerial strikes, was fired from Gaza into Israel on Thursday. It caused no damage and no Palestinian faction has claimed responsibility.

"If this rocket fire against Israel does not stop, it seems we will have to raise the level of our activity and step up our actions against Hamas," Silvan Shalom, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, told public radio."We won't allow frightened children to again be raised in bomb shelters and so, in the end, it will force us to launch another military operation."

Yesterday's Israeli aerial strikes mark the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's most significant military incursion in Gaza since the devastating offensive in December 2008, which lasted 22 days and killed 1,400 Palestinians, mainly civilians, and 13 Israelis.

In recent weeks, tensions have ratcheted up, ending months of relative calm. Two Israeli soldiers and two Palestinian fighters were killed last week in a fierce border skirmish after Israelis crossed into the strip.

Britain's Foreign Office last night called for restraint. "We are concerned by today's strikes and the escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel over the past week," it said in a statement. "We encourage Israelis and Palestinians to focus efforts on negotiation and to engage urgently in US-backed proximity talks."

According to the Israeli tally, 20 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza last month, and 40 since the beginning of the year. While Islamist groups largely hostile to Hamas have claimed responsibility for previous rocket attacks, Israel insists that ultimate responsibility lies with Hamas, which has controlled the strip since 2007.

Hamas yesterday accused Israel of stoking tensions with its "escalation" of military activity. But it also said it was "making contact with the factions to safeguard internal agreement" – an apparent effort to bring Islamist groups into line.

Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader exiled in Damascus, said earlier in the week that it was not in the Islamist group's interests to escalate tensions, and that it would maintain the calm, but it has been careful not to openly condemn rocket attacks on Israel.

The latest tensions come as Israel is embroiled in a deepening row with its closest ally, the United States, over an ill-timed decision to build 1,600 new settlement homes in East Jerusalem.

The US is now seeking far-reaching concessions from Israel, including the easing of the Israeli blockade on Gaza, to show it is serious about negotiating a peace deal with the Palestinians. Israel is not expected to provide a formal response until after the end of the Jewish Passover holiday.