GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – An Israeli airstrike killed five Hamas members early Saturday, prompting threats by Gaza militants to fire longer-range rockets at Israeli border towns.
Eight people were wounded, including one critically, in the strike near the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, close to the border with Israel, said Moaiya Hassanain of Gaza’s Health Ministry.
Hamas said the dead were members of its military wing, while many of the injured belonged to the Popular Resistance Committees, a smaller militant group allied with Hamas. Hamas said the men were on a night patrol east of Khan Younis.
The army said it carried out the strike after identifying armed men near its border with Gaza.
Israel carries out regular military operations in Gaza, targeting militants launching near-daily rocket barrages into Israel.
Abu Mujahed, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, said his brother was one of those killed in the airstrike. “This is a tax we pay for (creating) a homeland,” he said of his loss.
Abu Mujahed said his group had plans to fire longer-range rockets at Israel. “The real barrage of rockets has not yet began,” Abu Mujahed said, adding that “22 kilometers is not the ceiling.”
It was an apparent reference to 122mm Katyusha rockets that can hit targets 19 to 30 kilometers (12 to 19 miles) away, about twice the range of the thousands of homemade Qassam projectiles that Gaza militants have fired at Israel communities in recent years. In October, the Popular Resistance Committees claimed responsibility for firing a Katyusha at Israel.
Katyusha fire from Gaza has been extremely rare. The Islamic Jihad militant group claims to have fired about a dozen Russian-made rockets at Israel since March 2006, and to have “many” in their possession.
In response to the ongoing rocket attacks, Israel began reducing fuel supplies to Gaza last month.
Israel’s Supreme Court ruled Friday that the government can continue scaling back fuel shipments, but said it must postpone electricity cuts that were to begin Sunday. The ruling was in response to a legal challenge from a coalition of human rights groups that claims the policy constitutes collective punishment.
Hamas had seized control of Gaza in June, and Israel responded by largely closing off the territory. Gaza is dependent on Israel for all of its fuel and about half its electricity.
In other developments, the spokesman for Hamas’ military wing, Abu Obeida, said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had no right to attend the Mideast conference in Annapolis, Maryland, earlier this week.
In the meeting, Israel and the Palestinians, in the presence of representatives of nearly 50 states, announced that peace talks would resume after a violent seven-year hiatus.
Hamas and other allied militant groups have strongly opposed the resumption of peace talks with Israel, saying Abbas does not have political legitimacy to speak on behalf of Palestinians. The current barrage of rocket attacks has been one of Hamas’ ways of showing its resistance to peace talks.
“The resistance is what defines the road map for the homeland,” said Abu Obeida, referring to the U.S.-sponsored ‘road map’ which Israel and Palestinians are meant to abide by to facilitate negotiations for peace.