- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2008

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip | A crude rocket fired by Palestinian militants fell short of its target in Israel Friday, striking a house in the northern Gaza Strip and killing two schoolgirls.

The attack came as Israel sent mixed signals over its response to continuing Palestinian rocket fire. Israeli defense officials say politicians have approved a large-scale incursion into the territory once rainy conditions clear. But at the same time, Israel opened the border Friday to allow deliveries of humanitarian aid.

None of Gaza’s militant factions claimed responsibility for the attack on the house in Beit Lahiya. Gaza Health Ministry official Dr. Moiaya Hassanain said the two victims, ages 5 and 12, were cousins. Three other children were wounded, he said.

The girls were the first Palestinian civilians inadvertently killed by militants since their truce with Israel began collapsing six weeks ago. Family members and medics said they were killed by rocket fire.

Israel’s crossings with Gaza, which is home to 1.4 million Palestinians, have been tightly restricted by Israel since Islamic Hamas militants seized control of the coastal strip in June 2007. Only the barest essentials have been allowed in since a June 19 truce with Gaza gunmen began unraveling six weeks ago.

On Thursday, however, Israel’s Defense Ministry said it would open its cargo crossings into Gaza to avoid a humanitarian crisis. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the decision followed consultations with defense officials and calls from the international community, suggesting Israel might be open to international pressure to resume the truce.

A total of 106 trucks carried medicine, fuel, cooking gas and other vital goods into Gaza, including a small donation from Egypt, the military said.

Cabinet Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said the humanitarian shipment was meant to be a message to the people of Gaza that they were not Israel’s enemy.

“We are sending them a message that the Hamas leadership has turned them into a punching bag for everyone,” he told Israel Radio. “It is a leadership that has turned school yards into rocket-launching pads. This a leadership that does not care that the blood of its people will run in the streets.”

As with similar cases involving unintended civilian casualties in the past, however, there were no immediate signs of backlash against the militants after the girls’ death.

The militants kept up their fire on Israeli border areas despite Israel’s agreement to open the crossings. More than a dozen rockets and mortars were fired toward Israel by Friday evening, the Israeli military said. One home was struck, but no injuries were reported.

Israel left Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation and has been reluctant to press ahead with a campaign likely to exact heavy casualties on both sides. Past incursions have not halted the rocket barrages.

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