Hamas fires rockets, Israel considers escalation

152.jpgGAZA (Reuters) — Hamas kept up rocket fire into Israel on Monday in defiance of a ceasefire call by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli threats to escalate military strikes in the Gaza Strip.In the first internal Palestinian violence since a May 19 ceasefire, fighting between Hamas gunmen and members of a security force loyal to Abbas’ Fateh faction erupted in the territory. There were no reports of casualties.

At least seven rockets struck the town of Sderot in southern Israel but no one was hurt, the military said. Previous salvoes during an almost two-week surge of cross-border fighting have killed two Israelis — one a motorist hit on Sunday.

Israel has struck back with an aerial bombing campaign that has killed more than 40 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them fighters. Yet the failure to end the rocket barrages has prompted the Israeli government to speak of tougher action.

“I think the measures are effective but not enough, and we have a large battery of some more steps that I hope we will be able to take,” Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter told Reuters during a visit to Sderot. He did not elaborate.

An Israeli air strike in northern Gaza destroyed a building used by Hamas, Palestinian witnesses and an army spokesman said.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Sunday that Hamas would be fought “without limitation”. But having been rapped by a commission of inquiry for his handling of last year’s costly Lebanon war, Olmert has resisted rightist calls for a major ground sweep of Hamas bastions in the congested Gaza Strip.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops detained in the Palestinian city of Ramallah a senior member of Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which is part of Fateh, who was involved in deadly attacks against Israelis, an army spokesman said.

‘Security concerns’

Citing “security concerns” stemming from Olmert’s comments, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas stayed away from a weekly Cabinet meeting at his Gaza office on Monday, a government official said.

Abbas, who agreed a now-defunct Gaza truce with Olmert in November, has been trying to coax Hamas’ armed wing and other factions into holding their fire again.

The Fateh leader was rebuffed on Sunday by Hamas, which said Israel must agree to a comprehensive truce in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Israel says it will continue West Bank raids against suspects.

Abbas’ difficulties reflect his deeper challenges in sustaining a power-sharing deal with Islamist Hamas, which is shunned by the West for its refusal to make peace with Israel.

In new factional violence, Hamas security men exchanged fire with members of one of Abbas’ forces in Gaza, residents said.

Fateh said Hamas men attacked a vehicle carrying a Force 17 officer. Hamas was not immediately available for comment.

Witnesses said rival forces deployed gunmen on some of Gaza’s main roads, raising fears among local residents of more bloodshed.

Earlier, Hamas said it was responsible for Monday’s salvo against Sderot.

“Our strikes against the enemy are continuing and we will chase the occupation’s soldiers and settlers from every inch of Palestine,” the group said in a statement. Hamas refers to Gaza, the West Bank and Israel as Palestine.

Israel has hinted that it sees the current standoff as an opportunity to deliver a major blow to Hamas — even if a new Gaza truce is on offer.

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