Rocket fired from Gaza injures 14 Israelis in shopping mall

Click to follow
The Independent Online

At least 14 people were wounded – three of them seriously, including a child – when a Grad rocket fired by Gaza militants exploded in a shopping centre in the Mediterranean Israeli city of Ashkelon yesterday.

The attack, one of the most serious from Gaza using longer-range missiles, was launched as the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, was meeting President George Bush in Jerusalem. Mr Olmert had already hinted at a possible large military invasion of Gaza to stop rocket attacks.

The rocket caused a section of the roof of the shopping mall to collapse, briefly burying four people under the rubble. A spokesman at Barizilai hospital in Ashkelon, where the wounded were taken, said a woman and her young daughter, and another woman had been seriously wounded.

The attack, claimed by Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, came after five Palestinians in Gaza, said by local medics to be two civilians and three militants, were killed in what the Israeli military said were operations against rocket launchers. Army Radio said the rocket hit the third floor of the Hutzot mall in Ashkelon, which is about nine miles from the Gaza border, and added that a medical clinic, which was also damaged, takes up part of the floor.

Mr Olmert said before hearing of the attack: "We will not be able to tolerate continuous attacks on innocent civilians. We hope we will not have to act against Hamas in other ways with the military power that Israel hasn't yet started to use in a serious manner to stop it."

Some Israeli media reports say that the Israeli military's chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, had changed his stand and come out in favour of a ground offensive in Gaza.

Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defence minister, said Israel believed Islamic Jihad was getting the Grads from Iran. "It's part of the Iranian war against Israel," he told Israel Radio. There had been an offer of a ceasefire by all the militant factions in Gaza after intensive talks brokered by Egypt. But Israel has said any ceasefire needs to involve the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli Army corporal seized by Gaza militants in June 2006.

Hamas has been seeking a prisoner exchange in return for Cpl Shalit and has said his release is not linked to a ceasefire.