Warplanes, rockets end Gaza lull


Gaza City : Israeli warplanes hit Hamas-run Gaza on Thursday after militants rattled the Jewish state with rocket fire, ending a five-day lull and threatening efforts to push forward Middle East peace talks.

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The violence flared within hours of an Israeli operation on Wednesday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where undercover special forces killed four Palestinian militants, including two senior commanders.

Militants in the Hamas-run territory fired a dozen rockets into the Jewish state during the night, Israeli warplanes struck targets in northern Gaza early during the day and gunmen fired another dozen rockets afterward, according to the army and the militant groups.

There were no casualties, but the renewed tit-for-tat attacks put at risk international efforts to broker a more permanent deal to end the violence and the isolation around the impoverished territory.

They also come a day before the Israelis and Palestinians are to meet with a US general to resume peace talks that Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas suspended amid a week of strikes in Gaza that killed more than 130 Palestinians, including children and other civilians.

Addressing the summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Dakar on Thursday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned Israel’s “inappropriate and disproportionate use of force” and called on the Jewish state to stop strikes that end up killing civilians.

After the Bethlehem raid, the Palestinian presidency accused Israel of “barbaric crimes” in a rare harshly worded statement.

“These barbaric crimes reveal the truce face of Israel, which speaks loudly about peace and security all the while committing murders and executions against our people,” it said.

But Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak vowed to keep hitting militants.

“Yesterday in Bethlehem we proved again that Israel will pursue and hit all assassins with blood on their hands. No matter how much time has passed, Israel will be waiting for them,” he said.

And the Jewish state said it held Hamas, which violently seized control of Gaza in June, responsible for the rocket fire, even though the radical Islamic Jihad group claimed the salvoes.

“Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and they are accountable for every active aggression against Israel,” said government spokesman Mark Regev. “We will not allow Hamas to sub-contract out terrorism.”

Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a radical group that has claimed most of the rocket fire and suicide attacks against Israel over the past several years, vowed revenge after the Bethlehem deaths.

Israel, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad had been observing a tacit truce in and around the Gaza Strip since early Saturday as Egypt seeks to work out a more permanent deal.

Egypt has been holding talks aimed at ending Israeli strikes on Gaza, rocket fire into Israel and a lifting of a crippling regime of Israeli and international sanctions on the coastal strip, one of the world’s most densely-populated places where most people depend on aid.

The violence in and around the Gaza Strip, where Hamas seized power in June after routing forces loyal to Abbas, has cast a shadow over peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians that were revived at a US conference in November.

Since then, at least 351 people, most of them Gaza militants, have been killed in violence between the two sides, according to an AFP count.

On Friday, Barak and Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad are to meet with Lieutenant General William Fraser, appointed in January to oversee compliance with the 2003 international roadmap peace blueprint.

Ahead of the meeting to restart stalled peace negotiations, a diplomat familiar with the talks told AFP Israel had not been carrying out promised commitments on the ground. “Israel is not living up to its commitments to do what it can to facilitate the lives of the Palestinians in the West Bank.”

The liberal Haaretz newspaper quoted an unnamed Israeli official as saying “real tension has developed with the Americans, and if there are no steps on the ground we will find ourselves in big trouble.”