GAZA, Feb 28 (Reuters) – Israeli forces killed four Palestinian boys playing football in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip on Thursday, medical workers said, during intensified attacks in response to the death of an Israeli in a rocket strike.
The deaths of the boys, aged 10, 12, 13 and 15, near the town of Jabalya, raised to 26 the number of Palestinians killed in the Gaza Strip over the past two days. An Israeli military spokeswoman had no immediate information about the incident. “We are at the height of the battle,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in Tokyo, where he met U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before her visit next week to Israel and the occupied West Bank to try to push along peace talks.
Olmert appeared to suggest a major Israeli ground operation against militants in the Gaza Strip was not imminent, saying Israel’s fight against them was a “long process” and it had “no magic formula” to halt frequent rocket attacks. However, Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman later said the violence “may leave us no choice” but to send troops back in, two and a half years after Israel ended its occupation of Gaza.
Fifteen Palestinians — the four boys, three adult civilians and eight militants — were killed in air strikes or by missiles fired from the ground on Thursday, the medical workers said. The father of two of the youths wept in a Gaza hospital, unable to speak. Medical workers said the boys were playing soccer when an Israeli missile struck.
Another missile struck a police post about 150 metres (yards) from the home of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, killing one civilian, hospital officials said. The attack did not appear to have targeted Haniyeh, whose house was not damaged.
A six-month-old Palestinian baby was killed in an Israeli air strike on Wednesday. Hours earlier, five senior Hamas men had died in an attack from the air and a rocket fired by the Islamist group at the Israeli border town of Sderot killed an Israeli man at a college, the first such death since May.
The Israeli military said 21 rockets and 12 mortar bombs were fired from the Gaza Strip on Thursday. Three people were wounded in Israel and the government’s security minister, visiting Sderot, had to scramble for cover as a siren sounded.
Two rockets flew deeper into southern Israel, hitting a house and cemetery in Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 people. No one was hurt. Hamas’s new use against Ashkelon of Soviet-designed Grad missiles, more powerful and accurate than improvised Gazan Qassams, has raised the stakes in the confrontation.
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is negotiating with Israel, said in a statement its military actions “meant only one thing: the Israeli government … aims to destroy the peace process”.
Olmert said at the end of a four-day visit to Japan “the continuous shooting of Qassam rockets against uninvolved, innocent civilians is a major threat to the stability” of Israel’s political contacts with Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. He said, however, that he planned to hold another of his regular meetings with Abbas within the next two weeks.
Washington hopes the talks can result in a statehood deal this year but Palestinians have complained about their slow pace and Olmert has said the goal of the negotiations was an understanding of “basic principles” rather than a full accord.
At a Gaza funeral attended by hundreds, the father of six-month-old Mohammed al-Burai cradled the baby’s body in his arms. It was wrapped in the green flag of Hamas. In Sderot, Israelis mourned 47-year-old Ronnie Yehiye, a father of four.
In Tokyo, Rice was asked whether she urged Olmert not to use disproportionate force in responding to the rockets. “I think that’s not a good way to address this issue. The issue is that the attacks — rocket attacks — need to stop,” she told reporters.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki, speaking in East Jerusalem, said: “These stupid missiles being launched — firecrackers, but at the end they have killed Israeli civilians — we condemn this, clearly, openly, straightforwardly. “But at the same time, we condemn all the Israeli incursions into Gaza, killing Palestinian civilians, destroying their houses, preventing them from having a normal life,” he said.