Qassams Hit Two Sderot Apartment Houses; IAF Strike Kills Two Hamas Militants

Two of six Qassam rockets to hit the western Negev yesterday struck two residential buildings in Sderot, causing several residents to go into shock. But there were no injuries. The rocket fire also triggered power outages in Sderot and damaged several apartments.

Sderot residents whose apartments were hit escaped injury because they were either outside or in a reinforced room when the rockets landed. Islamic Jihad's military operatives and the Popular Resistance Committees took responsibility for the attacks.

Before dawn yesterday, two Hamas men were killed in an Israel Air Force strike on their vehicle in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

It was part of an operation meant to curb the rocket fire. Mahmoud Hamud and Omar Rihan, both 23-year-old Jabalya residents, were apparently on their way to fire Qassam rockets on southern Israel.

In addition, three Islamic Jihad militants were killed early yesterday in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, apparently due to the explosion of a bomb they were preparing.

The number of rockets fired at southern Israel this week has significantly decreased from the dozens of Qassams fired daily since the escalation began.

Hamas has limited its rocket attacks in the last few days.

The change appears to be related to internal Palestinian talks, although it could also be a sign that Hamas is looking for a way out of the latest round of violence.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told reporters, after meeting with the Egyptian security delegation in Gaza, that his government supports a comprehensive cease-fire with Israel - meaning in the West Bank as well as Gaza.

Haniyeh, who also met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, apparently decided to speak to the reporters in an effort to dismiss reports that he had gone underground for fear of being harmed in the violence.

Also yesterday, Israel's political-security cabinet unanimously decided to carry on with the current level of the military operation in Gaza.

This means the Israel Defense Forces will continue to deploy small forces in uninhabited areas in the northern Gaza Strip and send special units to populated areas, in limited numbers, while the air force continues operations there.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the heads of the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service told the cabinet yesterday that the army's activities in Gaza have so far been "effective," leading to a drop in the number of Qassams being launched.

Army gets green light

A political source in Jerusalem said the army has already been authorized to expand its activities in Gaza.

"Until now, only a small portion of the activities approved by the cabinet have been implemented," the source said, adding that many objectives have yet to be reached.

Ministers Eli Yishai (Shas) and Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) suggested intensifying the military operation, with Yishai saying Israel should carpet-bomb Palestinian towns after calling on the residents to evacuate the area.

Ministers Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) and Rafi Eitan (Pensioners) suggested that Israel produce an "Israeli Qassam" and fire it at Gaza in response to the rocket fire in Sderot.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh (Labor) submitted to the cabinet a report on the Defense Ministry's efforts to assist Sderot residents, including the operation of a district council on sustaining the economy in emergency situations and the establishment of a "welfare war room" to assist the weak sectors of the Sderot population.

Sneh also said additional funds are needed to reinforce buildings in the Negev town.