- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2008

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip | Hamas militants bombarded a major southern Israeli city with rocket fire Friday, unleashing their most powerful weapons yet in a week of tit-for-tat fighting that threatens to destroy a 5-month-old cease-fire.

Both Israel and Gaza’s Islamic militant Hamas rulers held out hope that calm would be restored, and Israeli leaders decided against any immediate major military action in retaliation. But the sides also vowed to strike hard at each other if violence persisted.

“If you want to leave the truce, we are ready. And if you want to continue it, then abide by it,” Hamas strongman Mahmoud Zahar said in a Friday sermon.

The truce took effect last June, largely halting a cycle of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel and deadly Israeli reprisals.

The cease-fire has mostly held, but began to deteriorate last week after an Israeli military raid on what the army said was a tunnel that militants planned to use for a cross-border raid. Eleven militants have been killed, and Palestinians have fired some 140 rockets and mortars from Gaza at Israel.

Israel also has shut Gaza’s vital border crossings, blocking the entrance of food, humanitarian goods and fuel into the impoverished area.

Friday’s rocket barrage was one of the heaviest yet. Nearly 20 rockets were fired into southern Israel, including four Grad-type Katyushas that landed in Ashkelon, some 17 miles north of Gaza. One woman in the southern Israeli town of Sderot was lightly injured by shrapnel, the army said.

It was the first time that rockets have reached Ashkelon in the current round of fighting.

The foreign-made Katyushas are thought to be smuggled into Gaza and have longer ranges than the crude homemade rockets usually fired by militants. With 120,000 people, Ashkelon is the biggest population center in rocket range, and Israel has responded harshly to past attacks on the coastal city.

But Israeli defense officials said the government had decided against any major military action for the time being unless the situation deteriorated. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified information.

“We will keep protecting our soldiers and people and keep acting against attempts to interrupt the cease-fire, but if the other side will want or wish to keep the cease-fire alive, we’ll consider it seriously,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak responded.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held an emergency meeting with Mr. Barak and other top security officials to discuss the situation. Afterward, Mr. Olmert indicated the border crossings would remain closed and military action would continue if necessary.

Israel controls all of Gaza’s official cargo crossings. Its decision to close the crossings last week has led to severe shortages of basic goods, causing the United Nations to suspend food aid distribution to tens of thousands of people. It also forced Gaza’s only power plant to halt operations.

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