Gaza militants fire four Qassam rockets into western Negev
Gaza gunman killed in IAF strike, day after worst fighting since Israel-Hamas truce took effect.
Palestinians fired four Qassam rockets into the Negev as renewed fighting between the Israel Defense Forces and Gaza militants continued on Thursday, Israel Radio reported.
All of the homemade rockets struck the western Negev. No injuries or damages were reported in the rocket attack, which came a day after the worst fighting between the Israel Defense Forces and Gaza militants since a truce began in the coastal region in June.
Late Wednesday, an Israel Air Force strike targeting a Qassam firing squad in the northern Gaza Strip killed at least one Palestinian gunman, the Israel Defense Forces said. The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad identified the casualty as a one of their own.
Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers sought to contain the fallout from the fighting, but the continued flaring up of violence threatened to unravel it anew.
Gaza militants pounded southern Israel with dozens of rockets on Wednesday to avenge a deadly IDF raid late Tuesday, which left six Palestinian gunmen dead. Neither side seems to have much to gain from a renewal of hostilities, and officials on both sides said they wanted to restore calm.
Islamic Jihad militants has earlier fired two rockets at the western Negev town of Sderot. One of its leaders, Khader Habib, declared the truce over.
Hamas, which agreed to the Egyptian-mediated truce, said Israel was breaching it. The group also claimed responsibility for dozens of rockets fired at the western Negev on Wednesday.
"The occupier has a clear plan to destroy the truce and drown us in blood," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.
Before the June truce, near daily rocket barrages had severely disrupted life in southern border towns and Israel has not found a military solution to stop them. Retaliatory Israeli airstrikes have killed scores of Palestinians in Gaza.
"We have no intention of violating the quiet," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on a tour of southern Israeli areas bordering Gaza. "But in any place where we need to thwart an action against Israeli soldiers and civilians, we will act," he added.
Hamas, on the other hand, needs the calm to strengthen its hold on Gaza, which it seized control of in June 2007, and restore its military capabilities ahead of a potential future battle with Israel.
Barhoum said the group has fired deep into Israel on Wednesday to demonstrate the price of continued Israeli aggression. At the same time, he said, Hamas had contacted Egyptian mediators to find ways of keeping the truce intact.
Clashes began late Tuesday after the IDF pushed 300 meters into the Gaza Strip to destroy what it said was a tunnel being dug near the border to abduct Israeli troops. During the incursion, the first such raid since the cease-fire went into effect, Hamas gunmen battled Israeli forces. One Hamas fighter was killed, prompting a wave of mortar fire at nearby Israeli targets.
An IAF strike then killed five Hamas militants preparing to fire mortar shells. Hamas responded with the barrage of rockets, including one that reached the city of Ashkelon, some 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of Gaza.
Israel's police said the rocket landed in an empty area. There were no reports of injuries or property damage. The army said four soldiers were wounded, two moderately, in the border fighting.
The violence was the worst since Israel and Hamas agreed to an Egyptian-mediated truce in June and revived scenes not witnessed since: ambulances on high alert in Israel as mortars thudded close to Jewish communities, and deadly Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.
Thousands of Palestinian mourners rushed slain militants through the streets of the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, waving green Hamas flags and vowing revenge.
Gaza residents crowded into hospitals, as ambulances delivered the dead and injured. Grieving militants in military fatigues fired rounds of automatic weapon fire into the air to commemorate their fallen comrades.
Over Gaza City, the thudding sound of rockets being fired into Israel was audible. Unmanned Israeli aircraft, often used to target militants, buzzed in the sky overhead.
Israeli defense officials said they had discovered a 300-yard (250-meter) tunnel days ago, and concluded the passage was to be used for a kidnapping. Hamas already is holding an IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit, whom militants captured in a cross-border raid more than two years ago.
Defense officials said they knew the raid could jeopardize the cease-fire, but concluded that Gaza's Hamas rulers would have an interest in restoring the calm.
Sporadic rocket attacks on southern Israel have persisted since the truce, but the attacks were carried out by smaller groups - such as Islamic Jihad - seeking to embarrass Hamas for preserving a truce with Israel.
Continued attacks have prompted Israel to close its border crossings into the coastal strip. Barak announced on Wednesday that the crossings would remain closed until further notice. Israel and Egypt lead a blockade on the Gaza Strip, imposed since Hamas seized power of the territory a year ago.