Fighting flares along Israel-Gaza border
GAZA, June 19 – Israel launched air strikes, killing two Palestinians, and Hamas fired its first cross-border rocket barrages in more than a year as fighting along the Israel-Gaza frontier flared on Tuesday for a second day.
The confrontation initially appeared to fit a familiar pattern of Israeli strikes against small squads of Gaza militants and rockets launched toward sparsely populated areas in southern Israel near the border.
But the surprise decision by the Gaza Strip’s Hamas Islamist rulers to re-engage militarily with Israel after months of staying on the sidelines and discouraging smaller militant groups from firing rockets held the prospect of wider conflict.
Since yesterday, Israeli air strikes have killed six Palestinians, at least four of them militants. Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, said the attacks prompted the group’s military wing “to take a firm stance” and launch rockets.
Israeli security officials said at least 14 rockets were fired at southern Israel today, causing no casualties.
Although other militant groups have fired rockets across the border in previous surges of violence, Hamas had held its fire under unofficial truces with Israel, a policy widely seen in Israel as effectively enabling the group to train and arm without much risk of Israeli attack.
Israel has said that Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, bears overall responsibility for any attacks from the coastal enclave.
“The more things deteriorate, the closer we come to a decision we don’t want to make,” Israeli cabinet minister Silvan Shalom said. “The prospect of a ground operation (in the Gaza Strip) shouldn’t frighten us.”
“If this situation escalates, and I hope it won’t, then all options are open. They know it. We know it. The international community knows it,” he told Israel Radio.
Yesterday, before the Gaza flare-up, militants who crossed into Israel from Egypt’s Sinai desert fired on Israelis building a barrier on that frontier, killing one worker, before soldiers shot and killed two of the attackers.
The Sinai attack, launched soon after the Muslim Brotherhood declared victory in Egypt’s presidential election, increased Israeli concerns about lawlessness in the area since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak last year.
In a video recording obtained in Gaza, a group of masked men claimed responsibility for the Sinai incident on behalf of what they said was a newly formed Islamic movement, “The Shura Council of Mujahideen in the Holy Land”.
The masked men used Islamic slogans, pledging to liberate the Holy Land from what they termed Jewish control.
A second video showed two men, one of whom said they were about to embark on a mission to attack “the Zionist forces on the border of Egypt and occupied Palestine”, an apparent reference to yesterday’s incident on the Sinai border.
The first man said he was an Egyptian named Abu Salah al-Masri. The other said he came from Saudi Arabia and gave his name as Abu Huthiyfa al-Rathali. The videos could not immediately be verified. – Reuters