- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

TEL AVIV — On a day when Israeli forces killed at least nine Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, militants in the coastal territory served notice for the first time yesterday that they have the ability to target a major Israeli city with their rockets.

A Grad-type Katyusha rocket fell in the open near a construction site at the northern edge of Ashkelon, a city of about 110,000 residents just up the coast from the Gaza Strip. A police spokesman said the missile touched down about 10 miles from Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.

With its power plant and tourism industry, Ashkelon is considered a strategic target, and many predict that continued hits on the city could prompt Israel’s army to ratchet up the reprisals.

The recent upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian fighting threatens to cloud President Bush’s two-day visit to the region next week. In preparation for the visit, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made an unannounced visit yesterday to Amman, Jordan, to discuss the peace process with King Abdullah.

The early-morning Katyusha attack was the start of deadly day of fighting in the Gaza Strip. Five members of the same family — a mother, and four children — were killed during an Israeli ground incursion into the southern Gaza Strip village of Bani Suhaila. Another four militant activists were killed by helicopter-launched missiles in areas throughout Gaza.

Israel’s television news quoted anonymous defense sources as saying that the army won’t allow the city of Ashkelon to be cannon fodder for Palestinian missile launchers in the same way Sderot has endured constant shelling. Officials said the Grad Katyusha rockets were smuggled into the Gaza Strip through illegal tunnels stretching underneath the border with Egypt.

This is part of an ongoing strategy of Palestinian terrorists in Gaza to target [Israeli] civilian population, Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said.

Unfortunately, because of the porous border, there is an illicit importation into Gaza of weaponry. … Steps must be taken to prevent this illicit transfer of weapons to terrorists in Gaza.

The smuggling has been a point of recent friction between Egypt and Israel, which says Cairo could be doing a better job of patrolling the border for smugglers.

Most of the missiles launched from the Gaza Strip are locally manufactured Qassam rockets that are relatively primitive. It’s not clear how many of the Grad missiles Palestinian militants have stockpiled.

The army said it thinks the missile was fired from the northern Gaza Strip. It was only the 11th time Ashkelon has been targeted by the missiles from Gaza, but a rocket has never traversed the length of the entire city.

It wasn’t a surprise. It’s just a question of when it was going to happen, said Allen Marcus, an official with the Ashkelon municipality. It will have a short-term effect on our real estate values and tourism. Hopefully things will calm down again.

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