- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2007

12:16 p.m.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Hamas militants fired a barrage of rockets and mortar shells toward Israel on its independence day today and said they considered it the end of a five-month truce with Israel.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, whose Hamas-led government negotiated the cease-fire with its militant wing, blamed Israel: “We made great efforts at keeping the truce, and there was a positive Palestinian position, but unfortunately, this position was met by expanding the aggression and escalating it against the Palestinian people,” he said. “It’s not a Palestinian problem, it is an Israeli problem.”

Nine Palestinians were killed in fighting with Israel over the weekend, most of them militants, but also two civilians.

The barrage, which came on Israel’s 59th independence day, did not cause any damage or injury, but it marked the first time Hamas acknowledged firing shells toward Israel since agreeing to a cease-fire along the Gaza-Israeli border in November. Hamas is tightly organized, and Israel says attacks from Gaza have the tacit approval from the militant group’s political leaders.

Israel Radio, citing military officials, said the rocket attack appeared to be an unsuccessful attempt to create a diversion in order to capture an Israeli soldier posted at the Gaza border. In June, Hamas-allied militants had tunneled from Gaza into Israel and seized an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who is still being held.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister discussed a possible response. More security consultations were planned for tomorrow, government officials said.

The Israeli military has warned of a Hamas arms buildup in Gaza and has readied contingency plans for a large-scale invasion of the territory. However, Mr. Olmert said earlier this month that the time is not ripe for a major ground campaign.

Hamas had held back attacks on Israel for months, especially during power-sharing talks with the Fatah movement of moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. A spokesman for the Islamic group’s armed wing said the group considered the truce over.

“The cease-fire has been over for a long time, and Israel is responsible for that,” the spokesman, Abu Obeida, told the Voice of Palestine radio station. “We are ready to kidnap more and more and kill more and more of your soldiers.”

Hamas-allied militants have demanded hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for the release of Cpl. Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier.

In other developments today, about 200 men from the Abu Sharkh tribe, many armed with rifles and M16s, pushed their way into the parliament building in Gaza City, firing in the air and carrying the body of 38-year-old Hassan Abu Sharkh on a stretcher.

The protesters briefly left Mr. Abu Sharkh’s body in the plenum, pushing aside guards and demanding that the killers be bought to justice.

Mr. Abu Sharkh was shot in the head on Sunday, and his body was dumped in a nearby park.

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