January 20, 2008
Israeli Airstrike in Gaza Kills 2 Hamas Members
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM — An Israeli airstrike killed two members of the Hamas military wing in the northern Gaza Strip early on Saturday, and three Qassam rockets fired by militants from Gaza landed in and around the Israeli border town of Sderot, causing no casualties.
The Israeli Army said another airstrike was aimed at a vehicle carrying weapons in northern Gaza early on Saturday, but no casualties were reported, and that a small ground force entered Gaza and arrested four armed Hamas militants, taking them to Israel for questioning.
The relative calm followed four days of heightened violence during which 39 Palestinians, including at least six civilians, were killed by Israeli fire, hospital officials in Gaza said.
The Israeli military said its actions were aimed at distancing "terrorist organizations, particularly Hamas," from the border fence, and at reducing rocket fire into Israel. More than 130 rockets were fired at Israel since Tuesday, the army said, with about half landing in Israel.
The official, John Dugard, who works on human rights in the Palestinian territories, said the Israelis who were responsible "for such cowardly action" resulting in civilian casualties "are guilty of serious war crimes and should be prosecuted and punished for their crimes." He said that the attack on the building "near a wedding party venue" was carried out "with what must have been foreseen loss of life and injury to many civilians."
An Israeli Army spokeswoman said that Israel "had attacked a Hamas headquarters," and nothing else, in the raid. In response to some of the earlier civilian deaths, military officials said that Israel attacked only militants, but that they often operated from civilian areas in Gaza, while the rocket fire from Gaza was directed at Israeli civilian centers.
Mr. Dugard also criticized Israel's closing of its border crossings with Gaza as a violation of "the strict prohibition on collective punishment contained in the Fourth Geneva Convention."
Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, said late on Thursday that the crossings between Gaza and Israel would be sealed for a few days to all traffic, except for essential supplies and emergency cases, as an additional measure to press Hamas into stopping the rocket fire.
Gaza's population of 1.5 million depends on imports for most basic supplies, and on Saturday, Hamas called on Egypt to open the Rafah crossing on its border with Gaza to allow in goods. The Rafah crossing has been officially closed since Hamas seized control of the strip in June, after the European mission monitoring the area left.
The Rafah crossing had previously been used for passenger traffic only. Hamas and Egypt have opened the crossing briefly on a few occasions, most recently to permit about 2,000 Palestinians to make the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Israeli officials said Hamas exploited such occasions to bring weapons and money into Gaza. International aid officials have warned that the situation in the already impoverished Gaza Strip could become perilous as a result of the closing.
A spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry, Shlomo Dror, said Saturday that "there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza and there won't be one."
He said, "It won't get to that stage." But he added, "It doesn't mean that we will make an easy life" for Hamas.
Mr. Dror noted that merchandise passed from Egypt into Gaza "all the time" through tunnels under the border.
At a news conference in Gaza on Saturday, Said Siam, a senior Hamas official who oversees security forces in Gaza, did not address the hostilities with Israel, but announced instead that a young man from Fatah, the main rival of Hamas, had been arrested for plotting to assassinate Ismail Haniya, the Hamas leader in Gaza.
Mr. Siam said the man had been planning to blow himself up in a mosque while Mr. Haniya prayed, and accused senior Fatah officials in the West Bank of involvement in the plot. Fatah officials denied the accusations.
Last week Hamas said it caught a young man with a bag of explosives heading for a sports stadium in Gaza where Mr. Haniya was appearing before a crowd.
In recent days there had been indications of a slight thaw in the enmity between Hamas and Fatah. President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah phoned a Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, in Gaza to offer his condolences after Mr. Zahar's son, a militant, was killed in one of the Israeli strikes. And on Friday, several Fatah figures were interviewed on the Hamas-run television station for the first time since June.
But some analysts see Mr. Siam's announcement as a sign that a rapprochement between the groups is still far off. Late on Friday, Mr. Abbas condemned Israel's actions in Gaza as "brutal," but also said the Hamas takeover of Gaza had "destroyed" Palestinian dreams.
Taghreed El-Khodary contributed reporting from Gaza.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company