- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2008

JERUSALEM | Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip bombarded southern Israel with dozens of mortar rounds and rockets on Wednesday, sowing panic and despair and burdening diplomatic efforts to revive an expired truce.

No Israelis were injured in the barrages. The attacks took a steeper toll in Gaza as explosives apparently misfired, wounding three civilians and killing two militants. One of the injured civilians works for a conflict resolution center.

Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, said the bombardment came in retaliation for the deaths of three fighters in a clash with Israeli troops late Tuesday. Israel said the militants were planting explosives along the Gaza border fence.

About 60 rockets and mortars had pelted southern Israel by midafternoon Wednesday, the military said. No injuries were reported, but a factory, a home and other structures were damaged. Rockets reached as far as Beit Hagdi, a small community about 12 miles from Gaza City, the military said.

A rocket slammed directly into a house in the small community of Tkuma seconds after a father rushed his children from the living room into a bomb shelter.

In Gaza, meanwhile, health officials said Iyad Dremly, a Palestinian attorney who works for the Palestinian Center for Conflict Resolution, was badly wounded in an explosion that ripped through his two-story apartment building in Gaza City.

Militants were firing rockets and mortars from the area, but the Israeli military said it did not carry out any attacks on Gaza, suggesting the blast was caused by misfired explosives.

Two other civilians were hurt when a rocket landed on another house several miles to the north in Beit Lahiya, health officials reported. Before dawn, two militants were killed in southern Gaza by an explosive they were preparing, Hamas reported.

Before the violence escalated, Israel had agreed to open cargo crossings with Gaza on Wednesday to allow in a limited amount of food, medicine and fuel, including supplies from Egypt. But military spokesman Peter Lerner said the passages would remain closed in light of the militant barrages.

Israel has maintained a strict blockade of Gaza since the June 19 cease-fire began unraveling six weeks ago, allowing in only small quantities of essential goods.

Amid the violence, both sides have expressed willingness to consider reviving the truce that lapsed on Friday. Egypt, which mediated the original cease-fire, is leading the diplomatic push to renew it, and on Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.

Alongside talk of restoring the truce, Israel is preparing for a large-scale military campaign against Gaza militants.

Israeli leaders have approved such an operation, but are reluctant to press ahead with a campaign likely to exact heavy casualties on both sides. Past incursions have not halted the barrages, and defense and political officials fear anything short of a reoccupation of Gaza would fail to achieve the desired results.

Israel left Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, though it still controls its border crossings.

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