- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2009

JERUSALEM

Israeli’s prime minister threatened “harsh and disproportionate” retaliation after Gaza militants fired at least 10 rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel on Sunday, wounding three and raising the risk of fresh violence days ahead of elections.

Israel hit back late Sunday, bombing the Egypt-Gaza border area where Hamas smuggles in weapons through tunnels, Palestinians said. No casualties were reported.

The flare-up raised the risk of growing violence in the days leading up to Israel’s parliamentary elections Feb. 10.

Since an unwritten truce ended Israel’s offensive in Gaza two weeks ago, rocket and mortar fire from the Palestinian territory has increased steadily. Israeli retaliation, including brief ground incursions and bombing runs aimed at rocket launchers and smuggling tunnels, is intensifying.

“If there is shooting at residents of the south, there will be an Israeli response that will be harsh and disproportionate by its nature,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet.

Israel launched its three-week offensive with the aim of ending years of Hamas rocket fire at southern Israel. It left nearly 1,300 Palestinians dead, more than half of them civilians, according to Gaza officials. Thirteen Israelis were killed, including three civilians.

A late afternoon mortar barrage on the southern Israeli village of Nahal Oz, next to the Gaza border fence, wounded two soldiers and a civilian, the military and rescue services said. Earlier, a rocket landed near a kindergarten, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

Late Sunday, Palestinians reported huge explosions as Israeli warplanes dropped bombs on the Egypt-Gaza border area, where Hamas operates tunnels to smuggle in weapons, food and other goods, Palestinians said.

Israeli aircraft first flew over the area in southern Gaza setting off sonic booms. Residents said hundreds of people who work in the tunnels fled, then waited in the streets of the border city, Rafah, for the attacks to end so they could return.

The Israeli military said warplanes attacked six tunnels and also an unspecified Hamas post in northern Gaza. No casualties were reported from any of the bombings.

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” of Gaza.

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

Israeli defense officials said they had not formulated a response to the strikes but said a return to the offensive - in which Israeli tanks and infantry units went deep into Gaza - was unlikely.

Instead, they said Israel would consider air strikes, including attempts to kill Hamas leaders. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified security matters.

Palestinians said residents near the Egypt-Gaza border received calls after nightfall Sunday from the Israeli military advising them to leave ahead of Israeli attacks on smuggling tunnels.

The military had no immediate comment.

The three-week Israeli offensive left nearly 1,300 Palestinians dead, more than half of them civilians, according to Gaza officials. Thirteen Israelis were killed, including three civilians.

Mr. Olmert is in the last weeks of his term. He resigned in September over a string of corruption investigations. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, his Kadima Party’s chosen successor, failed to put together an alternative government, forcing the upcoming election.

Two candidates for prime minister - Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Mrs. Livni - are in the government. The front-runner Benjamin Netanyahu of the hawkish Likud Party, is in the opposition.


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