Palestinian rocket fire kills one Israeli, critically injures another

Wednesday, November 15th 2006, 6:36 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ A Palestinian rocket fired from Gaza exploded near the home of Israel's defense minister Wednesday in the town of Sderot, killing a woman and raising the prospect of a new Israeli military offensive against militant rocket squads.

Militants affiliated with the Palestinians' ruling Hamas group and Islamic Jihad both claimed responsibility for the first deadly rocket attack on the town from Gaza since Israel withdrew in September 2005. They said the rocket fire was meant to avenge the deaths of 19 civilians killed last week in an Israeli shelling in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun.

That deadly strike, which Israel said was unintentional, came after Israeli troops wound up a weeklong incursion in Beit Hanoun meant to curb Palestinian rocket-launching operations there. But rocket attacks continued from other spots in Gaza during the incursion, and resumed from Beit Hanoun after the troops pulled out.

The rocket that fell Wednesday hit the town of Sderot, about 150 yards from the home of Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

Leah Malul, a spokeswoman for Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon, said a woman was killed, a man was critically injured and several other passersby were slightly wounded by shrapnel.

Police identified the critically injured man as a member of Peretz's security detail, who was on patrol around the defense minister's house when the rocket hit.

David Baker, an official in the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Israel's battle against rocket squads clearly had not ended.

``The continued Palestinian rocket attacks on Sderot and surrounding communities inside Israel are clear evidence that Israel cannot let up in its defense of its citizens and must root out these rocket launchers as well as those who perpetrate these attacks,'' Baker said.

The army said Palestinians fired a total of 12 rockets on Wednesday, and six landed in Israel. Four of the rockets struck the coastal city of Ashkelon, which is the farthest point north that Palestinian rockets have reached.

Although the attacks on the city were not the first, and caused no injuries, they could prompt the military to escalate its response to the attack on Sderot.

The homemade projectiles are primitive and rarely cause casualties, they have killed eight other people since 2001. In March, a father and son were killed by a rocket blast at Nahal Oz, a village just outside Gaza. The near-daily rocket fire has badly unnerved residents of places, like Sderot, that are frequent targets.

Peretz planned to convene a special meeting of senior security officials later in the day.

``Terror organizations will pay a heavy price,'' he said in a statement.

Several weeks ago, Olmert spoke of plans to broaden Israel's military strikes against rocket squads, but no large-scale offensive was mounted.

On Wednesday, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter told Army Radio that Israel must expand its operations to bring about ``a complete halt'' to rocket fire, ``whether that means a ground operation, or an air operation or other special operations.''

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the Palestinians acted in self defense.

``The occupation hasn't stopped attacking Palestinians before or after Beit Hanoun, so we say resistance is a right of Palestinians,'' Barhoum said.

The rocket fire coincided with Palestinian efforts to form a new unity government that might be moderate enough to induce the West to ease crippling economic sanctions.

Hamas insisted Tuesday it wouldn't recognize Israel even after a new government takes power, but suggested the emerging coalition would be free to stake out a more moderate position.

A months-long deadlock over whether the new government would recognize Israel is to be solved by a division of labor: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah Party and his Palestine Liberation Organization would lead peace talks with Israel, while the government of experts would run daily life in the Palestinian territories.

Abbas, a moderate elected separately last year, hopes Israel and the West will accept the premise that Hamas is largely ceding power by making room for a 24-member Cabinet of independent professionals.

But the Islamic militants would get to appoint nine of the ministers and retain considerable control, without abandoning their violent ideology. So it's not clear the new setup will be enough to prod Israel and the West to restore hundreds of millions of dollars cut off to pressure Hamas to moderate.

Abbas met in Cairo on Wednesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss the coalition talks and the potential for renewed peacemaking. Mubarak told Abbas that Palestinians should ``speak in one voice'' and express ``positions that advance the peace process and end Palestinian suffering.''

Later in the day, envoys of the so-called ``Quartet'' of Mideast mediators _ the U.S., the U.N., the EU and Russia _ also met in Cairo to discuss the new momentum. It was their first gathering since Hamas took power in March.

An agreement on a new Palestinian government would be closely linked to a Hamas-Israel prisoner swap and a promise by Gaza militants to halt rocket attacks on Israel.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is to try to conclude an exchange in a visit to the Palestinian territories, starting Saturday.

Abbas has promised Hamas he would not present the new government to parliament for approval until Hamas politicians imprisoned in Israel have been released.

Such a deal could pave the way for a long-overdue meeting between Abbas and Olmert. Abbas has been reluctant to meet while the Israeli soldier is in captivity, for fear Olmert would only discuss the serviceman's fate.