- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) — Gaza militants launched rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel on Sunday, wounding three Israelis, drawing a threat of “disproportionate” retaliation from the Israeli prime minister and further straining a cease-fire that ended Israel’s Gaza offensive.

The flare-up in violence came just over a week before Israel’s parliamentary vote, pitting Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni — one of the architects of the offensive — against the more hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu. Continued fighting could influence the outcome by raising questions about the effectiveness of Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Three people — two soldiers and a civilian — were wounded in a late afternoon mortar barrage on an Israeli village next to Gaza, police and the military said. Earlier, a rocket landed near a kindergarten in a community near Gaza, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Warning sirens sent residents scrambling for shelter.

Speaking to his Cabinet on Sunday, Israel’s outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said Israel would respond “when and where we choose.”

The Israeli offensive was aimed at halting years of rocket attacks, and the military declared a cease-fire on Jan. 18 after declaring its goals had been achieved.

But Sunday’s salvos, which followed sporadic rocket fire and the killing of an Israeli soldier in a border bombing attack last week, illustrated the difficulties of achieving a complete end to the attacks. Despite years of efforts, Israel’s high-tech military has failed to stop the projectiles.

The government’s position, Mr. Olmert said, is that “if there is shooting at residents of the south, there will be an Israeli response that will be harsh and disproportionate by its nature to the shooting at residents of Israel and at our forces.”

Israeli defense officials said they had not yet formulated a response, but said a return to the offensive, in which Israeli tanks and infantry units penetrated deep into Gaza, was unlikely. Instead, they said, Israel would consider airstrikes, including possible attempts to kill Hamas leaders. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified security matters.

Both Israel and Hamas have been talking to Egyptian mediators about a long-term truce. Israel wants an end to arms smuggling into Gaza from Egypt. Hamas wants Israel and Egypt to reopen Gaza’s borders, which have been virtually sealed since Hamas violently seized power in June 2007.

Responding to Israel’s concerns, U.S. Army engineers arrived at the Gaza-Egypt frontier on Sunday to set up ground-penetrating radar to detect smuggling tunnels, an Egyptian security official said.

Inside the Rafah terminal, the gateway between Egypt and Gaza, four army trucks loaded with wooden crates and drills could be seen accompanied by four U.S. Army engineers. The Egyptian officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity the subject. Israel has repeatedly called on Egypt to do more to end the smuggling.

On Sunday morning, AP Television News footage in the border town of Rafah showed surveillance cameras mounted on the roof of a house on the Egyptian side. An Egyptian soldier was visible on the balcony, looking into Gaza with binoculars. The equipment had been installed in the past few days.

Attacking Hamas could be risky for the outgoing Israeli government. Renewed fighting could erode support for Mrs. Livni, who has replaced Mr. Olmert as head of the centrist Kadima party and is the only serious challenger to the front-runner, hard-line Likud leader Mr. Netanyahu, according to recent opinion polls.

Mr. Netanyahu has been campaigning on a platform that calls for a tough stance against Hamas, and he stands to benefit if Israelis conclude that the offensive failed to achieve its goal of making residents of southern Israel safer.

Hamas has not taken responsibility for any of the new attacks, which have been claimed by smaller militant groups. But Israel says it holds Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since seizing power in June 2007, responsible for all attacks emanating from Gaza.

Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu said Mr. Olmert’s threat was an attempt by Israel to “find false pretexts to increase its aggression against the people” and to undermine Egyptian efforts to mediate a long-term cease-fire.

Since ending the offensive, Israel has conducted retaliatory strikes and pounded tunnels that Hamas uses to smuggle in weapons from Egypt. Israeli forces have also shot and killed three men whom Palestinians identified as farmers along the Gaza-Israel border.

Gaza is still struggling to recover from the punishing three-week offensive, which left swaths of the territory damaged and nearly 1,300 people dead, more than half of them civilians, according to Gaza officials. Thirteen Israelis were killed, including three civilians.

Associated Press writer Paul Schemm contributed to this report from Cairo.

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