Israel attacks Hamas targets

Series of airstrikes kill 9 Palestinians in Gaza after days of missile assaults

May 18, 2007|By Joel Greenberg | Joel Greenberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM -- Ratcheting up its response to militant rocket attacks, Israel moved tanks across its border with the Gaza Strip and pounded Hamas targets in a series of airstrikes yesterday and early today, killing nine Palestinians and wounding more than 40, medical officials said.

The Israeli strikes followed days of fierce fighting in Gaza between Hamas and the rival Fatah faction that triggered the rocket attacks on Israel. The internal fighting ebbed yesterday, but four Palestinians were reported killed in continuing violence that has claimed more than 40 lives this week.

Hamas, which appeared to have the upper hand in the factional fighting, accused Fatah of colluding with Israel in the battle for dominance in the Gaza Strip.

"There is coordination between Fatah and the Israeli occupation to destroy Hamas," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman.

Israeli officials said the action was a response to the rocket attacks, not an intervention in the internal Palestinian struggle.

Hamas said it fired the rockets to shift the focus from the internal fighting to Israel, and the group's exiled political leader, Khaled Mashal, said yesterday that the Israeli strikes had created a "historic opportunity" for the warring factions to unite against a common foe.

More than 80 rockets have been fired at southern Israel since Tuesday, the army said, many of them aimed at the border town of Sderot. Several rockets landed in the town yesterday, injuring two people, and one crashed into an empty classroom as students gathered for exams nearby.

Hundreds of jittery Sederot residents boarded government-supplied buses for a weekend away from the front line. Israeli media said more than 2,000 of the town's 24,000 residents had left.

The biggest Israeli strike yesterday was the bombing of a two-story building belonging to the Hamas-led security force, known as the Executive Force, in Gaza City. The powerful blast collapsed the building and heavily damaged nearby homes, killing a militant and wounding more than 40 people, including civilians, medical officials said.

Abu Obeidah, the spokesman for the Hamas military wing, vowed revenge and suggested it could take the form of suicide bombings. "This is an open war launched against Hamas," he said. "All options are open, including martyrdom operations."

A second airstrike hit a car carrying two senior Hamas commanders, killing one and wounding another, Hamas said. The army said it had targeted a cell "responsible for manufacturing and delivering weaponry."

The third strike targeted a trailer housing bodyguards of Khaled Abu Hilal, a renegade Fatah member who is the spokesman for the Interior Ministry and who helped organize Hamas' Executive Force. One guard was killed.

Another strike hit a pickup truck east of the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, killing two boys aged 10 and 12, medical officials said. The army said it had targeted a rocket-launching squad after rockets were fired from the area.

Early today Israeli aircraft fired missiles into an olive grove east of Gaza City, killing four Hamas militants and wounding at least six, doctors said, according to the Associated Press.

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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