Sderot's Bomb Shelters Opened for First Time as Qassams Rain Down

Hamas fired 19 Qassam rockets at Sderot and the western Negev yesterday, against the background of another day of fierce factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip, which left at least 15 Palestinians dead.

The rockets wounded 26 people, including one woman who was moderately to seriously hurt and a man who was moderately hurt. Most of the others suffered from shock. As a result of the barrage, the public bomb shelters in Sderot were opened for the first time.

Hamas openly claimed credit for the strikes and announced it plans to continue them. Palestinian security sources said Hamas is trying to provoke a fight with Israel in the hopes that an Israeli military response would calm the Fatah-Hamas fighting by uniting the two against a common enemy.

That assessment is shared by defense officials, and as a result, Israel decided not to respond immediately to yesterday's attacks, government sources said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said last night that Hamas and Fatah had agreed to a new cease-fire, which was due to take effect at midnight, Reuters reported. However, it was unclear whether the deal would hold. Previous cease-fire deals fell apart within hours.

According to Israeli government sources, the current rules of engagement in Gaza will remain in force, but if the Israel Defense Forces spots specific targets that exceed these limits, it will be able to ask Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz for special approval for a strike. Consequently, a slight but not major escalation in the IDF's offensive operations is likely, security sources said.

In addition, the diplomatic-security cabinet will meet this coming Sunday to discuss Israel's policy toward Gaza. That forum will discuss various options for intensifying military activity against the Qassam launches, but is not expected to approve a large-scale ground operation.

The existing guidelines permit the assassination of those involved in making or launching rockets, limited ground incursions into the area just over the Gaza-Israel border and attacks on anyone seen preparing to launch a rocket.

The barrages on the Negev began yesterday afternoon, but the first rockets did not hit Sderot until 6:30 P.M. One of those rockets struck a house and wounded the occupants, a 44-year-old mother - who was moderately to seriously wounded - and her four-year-old daughter. Three other houses also took direct hits.

Hamas said the barrage, the heaviest since Independence Day, was fired to mark Nakba ("Catastrophe") Day, the anniversary of Israel's establishment. Palestinians mark this day according to its Gregorian date, May 15, while Israelis use the Hebrew date.

Olmert's office said in response: "It's a pity that on a day when the prime minister extended his hand toward peace and visited Jordan to advance the Palestinian track. "

Meanwhile, officials in Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party complained to European officials yesterday that they lack sufficient arms and ammunition to fight Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Fatah's complaints come against the background of a debate within Israel's security establishment over to what degree Israel should help Fatah in its internal struggle against Hamas by allowing transfers of arms and ammunition to it from third parties. Thus far, Israel has refused to do so, despite America's urging.

There are three approaches to this issue within the defense es tablishment. One holds that Fatah is indeed at a disadvantage, because Hamas has smuggled in massive quantities of arms, while Abbas tried - and, due to Israel's opposition, failed - to obtain weapons through legal channels. Therefore, Israel should help him.

A second holds that Hamas has already won in Gaza, so there is no reason for Israel to get involved. A third argues that any additional weapons brought into Gaza will ultimately most likely be used against Israel, so arming Abbas's forces would be a mistake.

Security sources said this debate is still raging. In any case, no urgent request for arms transfers has yet been received from Abbas.