New Israeli airstrikes kill 3 in Gaza

IBRAHIM BARZAK Associated Press Published:

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Israeli airstrikes killed two Palestinian militants and a schoolboy in the Gaza Strip on Monday as Palestinian rocket squads barraged southern Israel in escalating fighting that has defied international truce efforts.

The cross-border violence, touched off by Israel's killing of a top militant leader on Friday, has been the worst exchange of fire between Israel and the Hamas-ruled territory in months.

The fighting so far has killed 21 Gazans, including 18 militants, seriously wounded two Israelis, and disrupted the lives of 1 million Israelis living within the range of Gaza rockets.

The Israeli military said it carried out nine air attacks against rocket-launching sites and a weapons storage facility early Monday. Islamic Jihad said two of its militants were killed in two separate raids, one while he was riding a motorcycle. A 16-year-old boy wearing a school uniform was killed when a group of five civilians was struck in another attack, Gaza health official Adham Abu Salmia said.

Two dozen Palestinians, including several children, were wounded in a separate pre-dawn strike Monday in Gaza City, Abu Salmia said. Chief Israeli military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai told Army Radio that this raid had targeted munitions that were stored in a residential building.

The military said the air attacks came in response to continued rocket fire, and Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld reported that 16 rockets were fired into southern Israel early Monday. One rocket damaged a preschool building on a communal farm shortly before children were scheduled to arrive, but no one was hurt, Rosenfeld said.

Schools in the area were closed for a second day to avoid casualties; a day earlier, a rocket struck the courtyard of one of the empty schools.

Israel says the newly introduced Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted dozens of the rockets since the clashes erupted, and military officials speculated this averted more casualties.

But although the violence shows no immediate signs of subsiding, both Hamas and Israel seem eager to avoid the kind of all-out war that erupted three years ago.

In keeping with its practice since that conflict, Hamas has stayed out of the current clashes, for fear of provoking a harsh Israeli retaliation. But it has not stopped other, smaller Gaza factions from attacking Israel, and Israel continues to hold it ultimately responsible for any violence emanating from Gaza.

In the past, similar flare-ups have died out by themselves or with informal cease-fires negotiated by third parties, often Egypt.

In this case too, Egypt has been trying to mediate an end to the clashes, and Hamas has also appealed to other Mideast countries to join the truce attempts. But the efforts have failed, with militants and Egypt insisting that Israel first halt its airstrikes.

"The Zionist state began this aggression. It has to stop its aggression first and then we will evaluate the situation and study the possibility of calm," the deputy secretary-general of Islamic Jihad, Ziad Nakhleh, was quoted as saying on the movement's web site.

Mordechai, the military spokesman, said Israel would halt its raids if the rocket fire would cease, but added that the Israeli military would continue to take pre-emptive action to foil militant attack plans.

Israel said it launched Friday's initial airstrike to stop a militant group's plan to infiltrate into Israel through Egypt's Sinai peninsula. The group -- Popular Resistance Committees -- was blamed for a similar border raid in August that killed eight Israelis, but the PRC has never acknowledged involvement.

On a visit to southern Israel on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed the airstrikes would continue as long as necessary. "We have a clear policy: we will hit anyone who plans to harm us, who prepares to harm us and who harms us," he said.

Mordechai said Monday that Israel was prepared for a ground offensive if necessary. He also said Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz has postponed a trip this week to the U.S. because of the fighting.