- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2006

2:11 p.m.

JERUSALEM — A Palestinian rocket fired from Gaza exploded near the home of Israel’s defense minister today, killing a woman and raising the prospect of a new Israeli military offensive against militant rocket squads.

Militants affiliated with the Palestinians’ ruling Hamas group and Islamic Jihad both claimed responsibility for the first deadly rocket attack on the town of Sderot from Gaza since Israel withdrew in September 2005.

They said the rocket fire was meant to avenge the deaths of 19 civilians killed last week in an Israeli shelling in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun.

That deadly strike, which Israel said was unintentional, came after Israeli troops wound up a weeklong incursion in Beit Hanoun meant to curb Palestinian rocket-launching operations there. Nevertheless, rocket attacks continued from other spots in Gaza during the incursion and resumed from Beit Hanoun after the troops pulled out.

The rocket in Sderot today hit about 150 yards from the home of Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

Leah Malul, a spokeswoman for Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon, said a woman was killed, a man was critically injured and several other passers-by were slightly wounded by shrapnel.

Police identified the critically injured man as a member of Mr. Peretz’s security detail who was on patrol around the defense minister’s house when the rocket hit.

David Baker, an official in the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Israel’s battle against rocket squads clearly had not ended.

“The continued Palestinian rocket attacks on Sderot and surrounding communities inside Israel are clear evidence that Israel cannot let up in its defense of its citizens and must root out these rocket launchers as well as those who perpetrate these attacks,” Mr. Baker said.

The army said Palestinians fired a total of 12 rockets today, and six landed in Israel. Four of the rockets struck the coastal city of Ashkelon, which is the farthest point north that Palestinian rockets have reached.

Although the attacks on the city were not the first and caused no injuries, they could prompt the military to escalate its response to the attack on Sderot.

The homemade projectiles are primitive and rarely cause casualties; they have killed eight other persons since 2001. In March, a father and son were killed by a rocket blast at Nahal Oz, a village just outside Gaza. Nevertheless, the near-daily rocket fire has badly unnerved residents of places, like Sderot, that are frequent targets.

Mr. Peretz planned to convene a special meeting of senior security officials later in the day.

“Terror organizations will pay a heavy price,”he said.

Several weeks ago, Mr. Olmert spoke of plans to broaden Israel’s military strikes against rocket squads, but no large-scale offensive was mounted.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter told Army Radio today that Israel must expand its operations to bring about “a complete halt” to rocket fire, “whether that means a ground operation, or an air operation or other special operations.”

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