GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – An Israeli airstrike killed two Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip early Friday, Palestinians said, as Israel continued its dual policy of battling militants in the Hamas-controlled territory while pursuing peace talks with moderate Palestinians in the West Bank.
The two men, from the Islamic Jihad group, had been posted in central Gaza near the Israeli border to observe army movements, Islamic Jihad said. The Israeli military confirmed that an aircraft had fired on a group of armed men in the area.
Israeli forces regularly clash with Palestinian militants launching rocket barrages at Israeli communities near Gaza.
Also Friday, a group of Palestinian militants who walked out of a Palestinian Authority prison in the West Bank town of Nablus on Thursday returned to jail voluntarily, a Palestinian security official said.
The dozen militants, from a violent offshoot of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement, turned themselves over to Abbas’ security forces nearly six weeks ago to avoid being captured by Israeli forces. But they left prison unmolested Thursday because of dissatisfaction with their living conditions, said Mahdi Abu Ghazaleh, one of the militants.
The men returned to jail Friday after negotiations with Palestinian Authority officials, the security official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge details to the media.
Israel said the fact that the militants had walked out of the Nablus prison unhindered indicated the Palestinian government was not yet capable of enforcing order in the West Bank, a key Israeli demand as the sides progress in peace talks.
“It’s clear that the Palestinian Authority still has major challenges in dealing with reforming its security services and fighting terrorism. Success in pursuing these two challenges are essential for the success of the peace process,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The peace talks have been marred by ongoing Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas the Palestinians want for their future state, as well as by the near-daily rocket barrages from Gaza. In response to the fire, Israel has clamped a blockade on Gaza with Egypt’s cooperation, allowing in only vital humanitarian aid. The step has caused economic distress in the already impoverished territory.
On Friday, a Hamas spokesman praised a decision by European Union lawmakers in Strasbourg, France on Thursday calling on Israel to end the blockade and open Gaza’s border crossings.
“We in Hamas are highly appreciative of the initiative and the call made by the EU parliament to end the siege imposed on Gaza,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. “We consider this an important development in the European attitude.”
In the decision of the European Parliament, which has no executive powers, the lawmakers called on Israel to “fulfill its international obligations as an occupying power in the Gaza Strip” and expressed “grave concern” at recent Israeli power cuts to Gaza, another step aimed at pressuring Hamas to halt the rocket fire.
Israel rejected the EU call on Friday. “As far as we’re concerned the ball is in the hands of the Palestinians and in the hands of Hamas,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said. “If they stop the rocket fire at Israeli towns we will stop our steps, which are meant to halt the daily rocket fire.”
Olmert is set to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Japan during a visit there next week, and talks will center on American concerns about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the daily Haaretz reported Friday.
Regev, Olmert’s spokesman, would say only that the visits to Japan by Rice and Olmert will overlap and that it “is possible” the two could meet.