JERUSALEM - Israel struck from the air at Palestinian militants preparing to launch mortar shells at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip yesterday, the army said, the first airborne attack by Israel since a truce was declared in February.
Israeli officials called the strike a signal to the Palestinian Authority that it must rein in militants who have launched sporadic mortar and rocket attacks on settlements and at southern Israel in recent weeks.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has come under criticism from settlers for failing to respond militarily to previous mortar firings, and yesterday's strike was apparently intended to show the critics that military action remains an option even as Israel prepares to withdraw from the Gaza Strip this summer.
The Israeli army suspended offensive operations in the Gaza Strip and curtailed them in the West Bank before the Feb. 8 summit between Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in which the two declared a truce after more than four years of fighting. Violence has dropped sharply since then but it has not stopped.
Yesterday, Hamas militants fired several mortar rounds at settlements in the Gaza Strip after the death of a member of the group overnight in the town of Rafah, on the border with Egypt.
Hamas accused Israeli troops of killing the militant, identified as Ahmad Barhoum, 22, a member of the group's armed wing, the Qassam Brigades.
However, Palestinian witnesses and the Israeli army said that Barhoum was killed by the premature explosion of a bomb he was preparing to plant on an Israeli patrol road along the frontier.
Militants later fired four mortar rounds that landed in the settlements of Morag and Neve Dekalim, and a squad preparing to fire on the outskirts of the town of Khan Yunis was targeted from the air, an army spokesman said.
Palestinians said a missile fired from an Israeli drone hit the squad, and one militant was critically wounded. Ten more mortar rounds were fired at settlements after the airstrike, lightly wounding an Israeli and damaging greenhouses, the army said.
Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri said that Hamas reserved the right to retaliate for Israeli actions, but he did not renounce an informal cease-fire agreed to by Palestinian militant groups before the February summit.
"The calm declared is a conditional one, and we have the right to respond to any violation," Masri said. "It has nothing to do with the continuation of the calm, which still exists."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the army was compelled to act after Palestinian security forces failed to rein in militant mortar squads who had attacked settlements in recent weeks.
"We have really exercised maximum restraint, but you reach a point where the Palestinians are supposed to prevent this from happening and they're not," Regev said. "This was a surgical strike on a squad preparing to target Israeli civilians, and there has to be a consensus that this sort of strike is legitimate."
In another development, Israeli officials said that 426 families, more than a quarter of the 1,600 settler families in the Gaza Strip, had signed up for a government offer to relocate them en masse to the coastal area of Nitzanim in southern Israel.
Stepping up the pressure on the settlers to leave voluntarily before their planned evacuation in mid-August, Justice Minister Tsipi Livni urged them to sign up for the Nitzanim plan or lose favorable terms offered now by the government.
"Someone who joins at the last minute will not get the same things we can give those who join today," Livni said at a news conference.
Leaders of the settlers have pledged to stay put, calling for nonviolent resistance to the evacuation.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, the Palestinian legislative council approved a new election law yesterday, but Abbas was expected to veto it, raising doubts about whether parliamentary elections set for July 17 would take place as scheduled.
Under the new electoral law, two-thirds of the legislators would be chosen by district voting, and another third from party slates. District voting would work to the benefit of Hamas, which made a strong showing in a recent round of local elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Abbas has argued that a vote by party lists would improve the prospects of his Fatah movement, the dominant Palestinian party.
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