GAZA, (Reuters) – Israel launched more air strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza on Saturday, killing at least one person, as top officials considered a broader strategy for stopping rockets being fired at Israeli towns.
Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said Israel could take many steps to counter the missile attacks, but played down the immediate prospect of a massive ground invasion of Gaza. “I think the idea of taking over Gaza again is a decision that can be made at any time,” he added.
The Israeli army said an air strike hit three militants firing rockets from northern Gaza. Local residents said the one person who was killed was a shepherd with no connection to the ruling Hamas movement or the rockets. Another five people were wounded, two seriously.
The makeshift rockets that militants fired into southern Israel on Saturday caused damage but no injuries.
Overnight, the army said it destroyed two Hamas weapons’ depots in Gaza City. Palestinians said they were metal foundries not connected to Hamas.
Israel’s bombing campaign against Hamas has killed at least 16 Palestinians since Wednesday. Local residents said the dead included at least four civilians.
At least 49 Palestinians have been killed in nine days of fierce internal fighting verging on civil war between Hamas Islamists and President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Fatah faction.
Hamas has accused Israel of conspiring to aid Fatah in a power struggle for control of Gaza, which Israeli troops and settlers quit nearly two years ago. “We hope the moderate forces will have the upper hand,” Peretz told Army Radio. “The Palestinian nation needs to understand that Hamas is leading them to disaster and bringing them to a catastrophe that they won’t be able to get out of.”
Gaza’s streets have been divided into checkpoints manned by rival fighters. Hamas and Fatah have placed snipers on rooftops and many Gaza residents remain holed up at home.
Fatah said one of its security officers was abducted by Hamas gunmen at a checkpoint on Saturday. Fighting continued overnight around the pro-Hamas Islamic University in Gaza City.
Most of the dead in the factional fighting have been on the Fatah side, but U.S. and Israeli security officials said they suspected Hamas was playing down the extent of its casualties. “President Abbas will go to Gaza in the coming days to stop the fighting,” said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat. A previous planned visit by Abbas to Gaza was called off due to security concerns.
In response to the intense Israeli air assault, Hamas’s armed wing has threatened to resume suicide bombings in Israel.
A Hamas bomber last struck in Israel in 2004. “If they will resume suicide bombings, we will retaliate with a siege on Gaza,” a senior Israeli official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The official said a proposal under review by top Israeli policy makers called for Israel to respond to any suicide bombings by sealing all of Gaza’s crossings. “It’s very delicate. We are aware of the potential ramifications,” the official said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told foreign ambassadors on Friday the government might decide on further action within days. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s cabinet will meet on Sunday.