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Israeli airstrike targets Gaza

Rafah bombing is retaliation for rocket and mortar fire into Israel. It is the heaviest such exchange since an unofficial truce began two weeks ago.

February 02, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Israeli aircraft bombed Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip late Sunday, retaliating for rocket and mortar fire in the heaviest such exchange since the start of an unofficial truce two weeks ago.

Six explosions shook the town of Rafah along the Gaza-Egypt border where Hamas operates tunnels that have been used to smuggle in weapons, residents said. Another airstrike hit a vacated security compound in central Gaza.

The Israeli military said it was striking back at Palestinian militants who had fired at least 10 rockets and mortar rounds into Israel earlier in the day, wounding three people. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had threatened a "disproportionate" Israeli response.

No injuries were reported in the Israeli attacks. Rafah residents said Israel had warned them three hours earlier, in text and voice messages sent by cellphone, to leave the proximity of weapons depots or smuggling tunnels. Hundreds of people fled a 10-block area along the border.

Smaller militant factions, not Hamas, claimed responsibility for Sunday's attacks on Israel.

One mortar barrage struck Nahal Oz, an Israeli village near the Gaza border fence, wounding two soldiers and a civilian, the military said. A rocket landed near a kindergarten in the Israeli village of Nir Oz.

Later, in a cautiously worded statement, Taher Nono, a spokesman for Hamas, which rules Gaza, said the government had urged all militant groups to "respect the national consensus" on the cease-fire.

Egypt is trying to broker a lasting cease-fire that would open Gaza's borders, ending an Israeli blockade that has economically crippled the coastal strip. A senior advisor to the Hamas government, Ahmed Yousef, reported that the indirect talks in Cairo had yielded "positive signs" of progress.

Israel waged a 22-day assault on Gaza that it said was aimed at ending militant rocket fire. It ended the offensive unilaterally Jan. 18 and withdrew ground forces from Gaza after Hamas declared its own cease-fire the following day. But sporadic fighting has punctured the calm, killing three Palestinians and an Israeli soldier.

During the Israeli assault, nearly 1,300 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed, and 13 Israelis died in the conflict. Although Hamas' forces were badly battered, the group remains firmly in control of Gaza.

Hamas' Syria-based leader, Khaled Meshaal, met Sunday in Tehran with senior officials of Iran's government, a patron of the militant group.

He said Hamas was "indebted" to Iran for its support against Israel, Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

Hamas receives political, financial and, Israel says, military support from Iran. Meshaal met with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khamenei praised "the resistance of Gazans" and said the conflict with Israel was not finished, the news agency said.

Iranian officials say they are eager to help repair the damage of Israel's assault but have been thwarted. The head of Iran's Red Crescent Society said Sunday that 2,000 tons of humanitarian relief supplies intended for Gaza were turned away by Egyptian authorities, the news agency reported.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Amman, Jordan, and special correspondent Mohammed Jamal in Rafah contributed to this report.

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