GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – A late-night Israeli airstrike against suspected rocket launchers in the Gaza Strip killed two Palestinian militants, the army and Palestinian officials said.
Earlier Friday, Palestinian militants fired five homemade rockets into Israel, a day after the Hamas-led government offered to renew a cease-fire.
Though the rockets were not fired by Hamas, they were likely to endanger prospects for a return to quiet following days of intense bloodshed.
The response came after nightfall, when Israel aircraft hit a vehicle carrying a cell from the Islamic Jihad militant group. The army said the men targeted were responsible for launching rockets into Israel. In the past week alone, the army said more than 120 such rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza.
Palestinian medics said two militants were killed and at least one other injured in a large explosion that destroyed a vehicle traveling in central Gaza. Islamic Jihad identified the dead men as Habib Ashour and Emad Yassin, both field operators in Gaza.
The Israeli army said there were no injuries from Friday’s rocket attacks. But Haim Ramon, a Cabinet minister in the ruling Kadima Party, said Israel was prepared to step up efforts to halt the fire.
“If the residents of the Gaza Strip don’t act and don’t understand that the largest threat to their security is Qassam (rocket) fire, then we will have to increase our response and take steps we have not yet taken,” he told Israel Radio.
Hamas said Thursday it was ready to restore the February 2005 cease-fire, which broke down last week after a beach explosion on June 9 killed eight Palestinians. Palestinians blamed Israel for the blast. Israel was shelling Gaza around that time but has said it was not responsible.
A Hamas official said the Islamic militant group was working to stop the daily rocket barrages against Israel. Israel responded favorably.
“If it is quiet, we will answer that with quiet,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry. But violence quickly resumed. Late Thursday, an Israeli aircraft attacked a group of militants on the Gaza-Israel border. The military said they were trying to plant bombs.
Palestinian hospital officials said the bodies of two Islamic Jihad militants were recovered. Militant groups loosely linked to President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks.
The truce greatly reduced Israeli-Palestinian violence that took more than 3,000 lives in the previous four years. The fighting with Israel has complicated an already difficult situation for Hamas, which is under intense international pressure to moderate and is grappling with bloody infighting against Fatah.
Western donors and Israel cut off financial transfers of hundreds of millions of dollars after Hamas won legislative elections earlier this year, demanding the group renounce violence and recognize Israel.
Without aid, Hamas-led government has been unable to pay the salaries of state workers for three months, causing widespread hardship.
In Belgium, European Union leaders endorsed a plan to channel humanitarian aid to the impoverished Palestinian areas while maintaining a funding freeze against the Hamas government.
EU officials said the 25-member bloc was considering an initial allocation of about ¤100 million (US$126 million) for health care, utilities and needy families. The EU said the plan was drawn up in consultation with the United States, Russia and the United Nations.
Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, declined to comment on the specifics of the plan until it is presented next week.
Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat, a confidant of Abbas, welcomed the EU initiative, but expressed disappointment that Palestinian workers would not receive salaries. “Any help that will alleviate this human catastrophe is very much needed. But I had hoped that the mechanism would involve the salaries of the 160,000 workers. We don’t want to turn our society into a welfare society,” he said. The Hamas-led government’s information minister, Youssef Rizka, criticized the EU for bowing to U.S. pressure and for its attempts to bypass Hamas while distributing aid. “This is regrettable. We were, as a government and a people, expecting that the Europeans, who have more knowledge of the Palestinian people and reality, would take a more positive position,” he said.