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Gazans step up attacks on Israel's south

As militants fire rockets and mortar shells by the dozens, Olmert convenes his security advisors.

December 25, 2008|Ashraf Khalil and Rushdi abu Alouf | Abu Alouf is a special correspondent

JERUSALEM AND GAZA CITY — Militants in the Gaza Strip showered southern Israeli towns with rockets and mortar fire Wednesday in the latest sign that the six-month truce between Israel and Hamas has collapsed.

An estimated 30 rockets and at least 20 mortar shells were launched from Gaza, Israeli and Palestinian sources said.

The makeshift rockets are wildly inaccurate and rarely cause serious injuries. But Israeli officials said more than 50 people, half of them children, were treated for hysteria and shock.

The Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade, Hamas' military wing, issued a statement saying the barrage was retaliation for the killing of three Hamas gunmen by Israeli soldiers in a clash Tuesday night. Later Wednesday, an Israeli warplane fired on what the army said was a group of militants preparing to fire a rocket. Local medical sources said at least one Palestinian was killed.

The Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade's statement said Israeli policies were forcing it to put Israeli civilians in the line of fire in order to protect Palestinians.

"The residents of the south will stay in the bomb shelters for a long time, and the threats of an Israeli military offensive don't scare us because we are more prepared than ever," the statement said.

Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert convened his "security Cabinet" on Wednesday but wouldn't comment on what options were under discussion.

The end of the truce Friday and the subsequent resumption of hostilities has increased pressure on the government to act decisively against the threat on Israel's southern flank.

But military commanders generally acknowledge that a full-scale retaking of Gaza, from which Israel withdrew its settlers and troops in 2005, would be complicated and bloody. And Olmert is a lame duck, serving until national elections Feb. 10 to choose his successor.

Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006 and took full control of Gaza after a brief unity government with its rival, the Fatah faction, collapsed amid street battles in 2007. Fatah's leadership, which has the support of the U.S. and Israel, now controls only the West Bank.

Israel's long-term blockade of Gaza, backed by Western powers and assisted by Egypt, has damaged the Gazan economy but has failed to seriously weaken Hamas' hold on the coastal territory.

Egypt, which had helped negotiate the truce, continues to mediate. Both sides have said they would be willing to renew the cease-fire but both are looking for better terms.

In addition to ending the rocket fire, Israel is seeking the return of army Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who has been held in Gaza since a June 2006 ambush. Hamas wants Gaza's borders with Israel and Egypt reopened and to reassume its role as part of the elected Palestinian Authority government based in the West Bank.

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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