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Hamas fires mortars at southern Israel

The militant group that rules the Gaza Strip acknowledges firing dozens of shells into Israel, the first time it has done so since the Israeli assault on the territory two years ago. Israel responds with tank fire. Two Israelis and five Palestinians are wounded.

March 20, 2011|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • A house in southern Israel shows damage from Hamas mortar attacks launched from the Gaza Strip.
A house in southern Israel shows damage from Hamas mortar attacks launched… (Reuters )

Reporting from Jerusalem — The Islamist militant group Hamas said Saturday it had resumed mortar attacks against southern Israel for the first time in more than two years, as tensions escalated between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

About 50 mortar shells were fired Saturday morning into Israel's Pitchat Shalom region, damaging a home and wounding two people, military officials said.

Israel retaliated by firing tank shells at several targets in Gaza, wounding five people, including three Hamas militants, Palestinian officials said.

Hamas' military wing claimed responsibility for firing 33 of the projectiles, marking the first time Hamas has acknowledged firing mortar shells into Israel since January 2009 at the end of the 22-day Israeli offensive in Gaza.

Hamas officials said the mortar attacks were in response to recent Israeli airstrikes that killed two members of the group.

Although southern Israel is still routinely struck with rockets and mortar shells from Gaza, Hamas has blamed the attacks on rival militant groups operating in the territory.

Until Saturday, Hamas officials had said they opposed striking Israel, fearing such attacks might provoke a harsh response and saying they were not currently in the "Palestinian national interest." In some cases, Hamas had even tried to prevent other groups from launching rockets and firing mortars.

But the decision to resume mortar attacks may signal a shift in Hamas' strategy and the start of increased violence along the border.

Israeli officials warned that they would not stand by and endure the kind of rocket barrage that occurred in 2006-08, and they threatened to launch another ground offensive if necessary.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that "Israel would take all necessary measures to protect its citizens." Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lodged a formal complaint Saturday with the United Nations about the mortar fire.

Separately Saturday, journalists in Gaza accused Hamas security forces of attacking them as they tried to cover a small demonstration, striking reporters, raiding media offices and confiscating cameras and other equipment.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Times correspondent Ahmed Aldabba in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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