GAZA, (Reuters) – Israel killed at least 13 Palestinian militants in air strikes in the Gaza Strip that marked on Tuesday its most deadly military response in months to frequent rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled territory.
Islamic Jihad, the group behind many of the rocket launchings that have been disrupting life in southern Israeli communities, said four of its members were killed as they walked out of a mosque in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza. Hours earlier, air strikes killed seven Islamic Jihad militants, including a senior Gaza commander, prompting the group to threaten suicide bombings inside the Jewish state.
Israel has not been hit by a suicide bombing in 11 months, a respite that has helped pave the way for renewed peace efforts with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who opposes such attacks. “I can tell you that targeted killings in the West Bank have led to a drastic drop in terror attacks … and in the Gaza Strip it certainly reduces the number of rockets fired into Israel,” Vice Premier Haim Ramon told Israeli Army Radio.
Israel uses the term “targeted killings” to describe attacks on top Palestinian militants.
Palestinian officials said Majed al-Harazeen, one of the Islamic Jihad dead, was the most senior militant commander to be killed by Israel in the Gaza Strip in more than a year.
In the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, an Israeli air strike on a Hamas security position killed at least two members of the group, Hamas officials said.
The Israeli military said the attack was in response to mortar bombs fired earlier at southern Israel. It said five rockets were also launched by Gaza militants. No one was hurt on the Israeli side. “Blood for blood and bombardment for bombardment,” an Islamic Jihad activist cried through a loudspeaker at a funeral for the men killed in the air strikes. Gunmen fired in the air, accidentally severing a high-voltage power line, which fell on the crowd of mourners, injuring eight people.
Broadcasting on a radio frequency used by Gaza militants, an Islamic Jihad official ordered fighters to turn off their mobile phones and remove their batteries to foil Israeli electronic tracking and to stay out of vehicles.
Rocket strikes from the Gaza Strip rarely cause injuries or deaths but residents of Israeli border towns have been pressing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to order a ground offensive.
Israeli officials have cautioned that a massive military push back into the Gaza Strip, which Israeli troops and settlers quit in 2005, could lead to heavy Israeli and Palestinian casualties.
Commenting on the latest attacks from the air, Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, said: “We will continue these sort of surgical counter-terrorist strikes as long as our civilian population is the target of these daily (rocket) barrages.” Regev said more than 2,000 rockets have been fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip in the past few months.