IDF attacks militant behind rocket fire during Sharon funeral
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AFP
Palestinian men stand around a destroyed car after overnight Israeli air strikes in Gaza City on January 16, 2014. Photo by AFP

Israel killed two Gaza gunmen in an air strike early Wednesday, including it said was involved in the firing of rockets across the border during former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's funeral last week.

Military units stationed around the Gaza Strip have been put on high alert in case of a Palestinian response to the attack. Iron Dome batteries were recently deployed to defend southern Israeli cities from rocket fire.

Palestinian residents initially identified the slain men as members of Islamic Jihad, an armed faction that has sometimes chafed at efforts by the Gaza Strip's Hamas government to preserve a cease-fire with Israel.

But the Israeli military, confirming the air strike in Beit Hanoun, said it targeted Ahmed Za'anin, a former Islamic Jihad member who had joined the more secular Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine in Gaza. This is an independent faction that does not heed to the leadership of the organization in Ramallah and abroad and continues to take part in sporadic rocket fire at Israel.

Za'anin had carried out numerous attacks, the military said, including the launch of rockets into southern Israel as Sharon was being buried there in a January 15 ceremony attended by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and other foreign dignitaries.

There were no casualties in that salvo.

Za'anin and the second gunman, his relative, were sitting in a parked car when it was hit by the missile, locals said.

On Sunday, an air strike wounded Ahmed Sa'ad, a Gaza man linked by Israel to other rockets launches last week. Israel said those attacks, which hurt no one but caused consternation in towns outside Gaza, were the work of Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad.

The targeted air strike on Sunday, a joint effort by Israel Air Force and the Shin Bet security service, was the first by Israel in this many months.

The targets of both attacks were not militants en route to fire rockets at Israel, but were operations against those responsible for such actions. The military and the Shin Bet blame Za'anin not only for taking part in rocket fire at Israel, but also said he was involved in sniper attacks, launching of anti-tank missiles and activating explosive charges against Israeli forces operating on the fence surrounding Gaza.

Wednesday's air strike could complicate efforts by Egypt, a frequent mediator between Israel and Gaza, to talk Islamic Jihad, Hamas and other Palestinian factions into a truce.

After a stretch of unusual quiet around Gaza, there have been some 20 Palestinian rocket or mortar launches over the last month, Israel says. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed preemptive action against such threats.

"We have a very clear policy of foiling terrorist attacks when we identify their forming and of responding firmly to those who harm us," he said in Jerusalem.

"This policy has yielded a quiet year in 2013, the quietest year in many, and if Hamas and the terrorist organizations have forgotten this lesson then they will learn it, with great force, in the near future."

The defense establishment is operating under the premise that the Hamas government is currently not interested in a clash with Israel and believes that its security forces in Gaza are working to curb rocket fire by smaller factions.