Israel strikes Hamas camps in Gaza, threatens to go after political leaders

19.jpgOCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s deputy defence minister threatened Tuesday to target Hamas’  political leaders, calling them “terrorists in suits” after a Hamas rocket attack killed an Israeli woman. The harsh words were backed up by action, with fresh air  strikes on Hamas targets.Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, travelled from his West Bank headquarters to Gaza, for talks with the group’s leadership in a last-ditch attempt to salvage a truce with Israel and to rein in factional bloodletting that has raged between Hamas and his Fateh movement.

Fateh officials said Abbas would meet Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, but would not divulge the timing or location, citing security concerns.

Israeli aircraft struck two camps used by Hamas on Tuesday, a day after a Palestinian rocket attack killed a woman in the southern Israeli town of Sderot.

Israeli leaders suggested that even Haniyeh could be targeted, with Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh calling Hamas’ leaders “terrorists in suits” in a radio interview.

“We don’t care if he’s a ring leader, a perpetrator of rocket launching or if he is one of the political leaders,” Sneh later told the Associated Press. “No one has immunity.”

Later, an Israeli helicopter strafed a rocket launch site with machine-gun fire, wounding three people, Palestinian security officials and hospital staff said.

They could not say if the casualties were fighters.

The Israeli military said it fired at areas known to be used for launching rockets, but could not confirm hitting anyone.

Hamas said it had fired at Israel shortly

 before the helicopter attack and Israeli Channel One TV, reporting live from Sderot, said two rockets fell there, one in an empty street and one in a wheat field.

Despite Israeli vows of harsh retaliation in response to Monday night’s Sderot attack, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acknowledged there is no quick solution for the rocket barrages and Defence Minister Amir Peretz told visiting European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana that Israel was holding off from launching a major ground offensive into Gaza in order to give diplomacy a chance to defuse the crisis, Peretz’s office said.

Abbas himself is seen as a potential target of Hamas, which has been locked in factional fighting with his Fateh movement.

Eyewitnesses said he entered the strip Tuesday evening in a motorcade of dozens of vehicles bristling with armed guards, while presidential security forces locked down central Gaza thoroughfares and marksmen staked out rooftop vantage points along the route to his seafront official residence.

Wary of Israeli strikes, leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian groups in Gaza have lowered their profiles, turning off cell phones and staying off the streets.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri threatened harsh retaliation if the group’s leaders were attacked. “Harming … any of Hamas’ leadership will cost the occupation dearly,” he said. “This will mean responses.” He did not elaborate.

After a six-month lull, Israel resumed air strikes on Palestinian targets in Gaza last Wednesday in response to heavy rocket fire. More than 40 Palestinians, most of them fighters, have been killed.

But Israel’s high-tech military has not been able to find a solution for countering the crude rockets. Over the past week, more than 150 rockets have landed in and around Sderot, a town of 24,000 near the Gaza border.

Nine rockets were fired Tuesday, lightly wounding two people, the army said. Israel responded with air strikes, targeting two suspected arms caches, two Hamas bases and the rocket site near the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun.

Palestinian officials said a total of 10 people were wounded.

The 31-year-old Sderot woman was the first Israeli killed by a Palestinian rocket since November.

On Tuesday, the government evacuated hundreds of Sderot residents to hotels in other parts of the country for the Shavuot Jewish holiday, which began at sundown. The evacuation was orderly, and Israeli soldiers helped people board the buses, shouting instructions through megaphones.

Mechi Friederwitzer-Fendell, who immigrated to Israel from New York City in 2000 and has raised seven children in Sderot, said she is staying put, but she called on the government to get tougher still with the Palestinians.

“Maybe we should knock down some houses,” she said.

“They fire a missile and we destroy a few houses, let them realise that we can’t stand for this.” Hamas’ rocket attacks apparently have been aimed at triggering an Israel response and ending the Palestinian infighting, which killed some 50 people last week.

Ahmed Youssef, a senior Hamas official, said that the group would consider talks on a ceasefire, if Israel first stopped its “mad attacks”. “The aggression must stop so we can talk about a comprehensive ceasefire,” said Youssef, a top aide to Haniyeh. “The government is working on expanding the truce. This is a national interest.” However, Israel dismissed talk of a new ceasefire, saying Hamas never sticks to truces.

“Hamas… is leading the violence,” Peretz said Tuesday before meeting Solana in Jerusalem. “We don’t intend on stopping. We will stop at the point that the rockets stop.” Solana said he would head to the Gaza Strip in the coming days.

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