gaza - AP - December 9 2011
Palestinians gathering around the wreckage of a car that was the target of an Israeli air attack in Gaza City yesterday. Photo by AP
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Gaza militants launched several rockets toward Israel's south yesterday, hours after an Israeli air strike in central Gaza killed four Palestinians, two of them militants allegedly planning a terrorist attack on the Israel-Egypt border.

A Grad-type rocket exploded in an open field near Be'er Sheva, with a Qassam rocket landing in an open field in the Sha'ar Hanegev regional council district. No injuries or damages were reported in either incident.

Earlier yesterday, two Palestinian militants and two other Palestinians were killed in an Israeli air strike at a car traveling in central Gaza, Palestinian sources said.

The attack took place at midday in the crowded Omar al-Mukhtar street. The car in which the two militants were traveling went up in flames, medical officials said. Palestinians reported several other casualties as a result of the explosion.

Hamas sources said the two men in the car were activists of its military faction, Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. However, earlier reports said the more senior operative, Isam Subhi al-Batash, was a member of Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.

Witnesses and paramedics said it was the first Israeli strike inside Gaza City since the three-week Gaza War (Operation Cast Lead ) in 2008-2009.

Regardless of the two men's official affiliation, they seemed to be operating as an independent unit financed by foreign organizations to carry out a terror attack in the Sinai, defense sources said.

The IDF said al-Batash was involved in the July 2007 suicide bombing that occurred in Eilat, in which three people were killed. Since then he took part in terror activity, moving from Gaza to Israel via Sinai, army sources said.

The decision to target al-Batash in the heart of Gaza City was probably prompted by a recent tip regarding terrorists planning to carry out a terror attack from Sinai, rather than by the July 2007 attack. The alert was about an attack near the Israeli-Egyptian border and part of the border fence's construction was halted as a result.

Israeli defense officials said al-Batash operated a unit that had already begun planning a terror attack in the Sinai Peninsula. The size of the unit carrying out the planned attack is not clear, the officials said.

Despite al-Batash's killing, the unit's members are still apparently at large in Sinai and the Egyptian defense forces have not been able to find them, the officials said.

Israel's decision to launch the attack on the unit was accompanied by many fears of triggering escalation and rocket fire from the Gaza Strip at Israel, defense officials said.

But since the unit belonged to a small organization that is not supported by one of the large factions, Israeli officials assumed the conflagration risk was relatively low.

Hamas' statement acknowledging the two were its men could imply the organization is planning a retaliation to the strike.

Yesterday evening the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades said they had launched a rocket toward the Sha'ar Hanegev community near the border.

Hamas yesterday called on Egypt and the international community to stop the "Israeli aggression."

Meanwhile, Egyptian intelligence officers have been preparing for the second part of the Gilad Shalit exchange deal. Arab media report that a senior Israeli envoy has visited Cairo in recent days to discuss the details of the deal's final stage.

Israel has agreed to free 550 Palestinian prisoners within less than 10 days as a gesture toward Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

But in view of the severed relations between Israel and Abbas, it is doubtful whether Israel would consider him at all, Israeli sources said.

The prisoners to be released include numerous Fatah men, but most of them have been sentenced to relatively short prison terms or are about to be released.

Israel, which will determine which prisoners will be freed, is not expected to release veteran ones, certainly not prisoners described as having "blood on their hands," due to expected pressure on the part of right-wing politicians.