GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli warplanes and artillery pounded an area of northern Gaza on Wednesday in response to Palestinian militants firing a rocket into Israel”s southern town of Sderot.
No casualties were reported in any of the incidents, part of a flare-up of violence this week that has been one of the worst since Israel quit the Gaza Strip last month.
The violence has threatened to unravel an eight-month-old cease-fire and has cast a shadow over international hopes of a revival of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking since the Jewish state withdrew from Gaza after 38 years of occupation.
After a lull in violence for much of Tuesday, militants fired two rockets at Israel from Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza on Wednesday, witnesses said. An Israeli military source said the remains of one rocket were found near a Sderot college.
The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed wing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas”s ruling Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the rocket attack. Abbas had condemned earlier rocket attacks by militants.
About two hours after Sderot was hit, the Israeli military said it had sent warplanes to carry out a bombing raid against a rocket launch-pad in northern Gaza.
The aircraft fired "warning shots into an open area from where Qassam rockets were launched" to prevent further attacks, the military said.
It said the army directed artillery fire at northern Gaza, and Palestinian witnesses reported explosions in the area near Beit Hanoun.
A Palestinian official said Israel had warned that Palestinian civilians should stay away from the area.
The flare-up of violence followed followed Israel”s killing of a top Islamic Jihad militant in the occupied West Bank on Monday.
Militants fired rockets at Israel on Monday in retaliation for the killing of Loai Assadi, the most senior militant killed since the start of the truce.
Israel responded with missile strikes in which Palestinian medics said a woman and her two daughters were wounded.
The Jewish state said it had targeted buildings used by militants.
Abbas”s Palestinian Authority said on Tuesday it had deployed forces near sites used by militants to launch rocket attacks.
Israel quit Gaza on September 12, evacuating 8,500 settlers under what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called a plan to "disengage" from conflict with Palestinians.
But Sharon has vowed that Israel will never give up large West Bank settlement blocs. Some 245,000 Jews live in the West Bank, home to 2.4 million Palestinians.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel on Tuesday to ease border crossings round Gaza, a move she said was essential to spur an economic revival needed for peace.
"It is very clear that the crossings issue needs to get resolved," Rice told reporters during a visit to Canada.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was due to go to Egypt on Wednesday to discuss the issue of reopening Gaza border crossings.