Homemade Rockets Fired Into Israel From Gaza

Palestinian militants fired five homemade rockets into Israel on Friday, a day after the Hamas-led government offered to renew a cease-fire.

Although the rockets were not fired by Hamas, they are likely to provoke a sharp Israeli response — endangering prospects for a return to quiet following days of intense bloodshed.

The Israeli army said there were no injuries. But the attacks drew a tough threat from a senior Israeli official and raised questions about efforts to restore calm after nearly a week of fighting.

Hamas said Thursday it was ready to restore the February 2005 cease-fire, which broke down last week after a beach explosion killed eight Palestinians. A Hamas official said the group also was working to stop the daily rocket barrages on Israel.

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Israel responded favorably. "If it is quiet, we will answer that with quiet," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.

But violence quickly resumed. Late Thursday, an Israeli aircraft attacked a group of militants on the Gaza-Israel border. The military said the militants were trying to plant bombs.

Palestinian hospital officials said the bodies of two Islamic Jihad militants were recovered. Searches for what was believed to be the body of a third militant were to resume Friday.

Militant groups loosely linked to President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks.

The flare-up threatened to disrupt the latest efforts to restore the truce. Haim Ramon, a Cabinet minister in the ruling Kadima Party, said Israel is prepared to step up efforts to halt the rocket fire.

"If the residents of the Gaza Strip don't act and don't understand that the largest threat to their security is Qassam (rocket) fire, then we will have to increase our response and take steps we have not yet taken," he told Israel Radio.

The truce, declared in February 2005, greatly reduced Israeli-Palestinian violence that took more than 3,000 lives in the previous four years.

Hamas said it was pulling out of the truce June 9 after the Gaza beach explosion. Palestinians blamed Israel for the blast. Israel was shelling Gaza around that time but has said it was not responsible for the explosion.

Hamas militants bombarded Israel with rocket fire for several days, though the barrages tapered off Thursday, an indication that the group is sidelining its militants.

The fighting with Israel has complicated an already difficult situation for Hamas, which is under intense international pressure to moderate and is grappling with bloody infighting against Fatah.

Western donors and Israel cut off financial transfers of hundreds of millions of dollars after Hamas won legislative elections earlier this year, demanding the militant group renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Without aid, Hamas-led government has been unable to pay the salaries of state workers for three months, causing widespread hardship.

In Brussels, Belgium, European Union leaders endorsed a plan to channel humanitarian aid to the impoverished Palestinian areas while maintaining a funding freeze against the Hamas government.

EU officials said the 25-member bloc was considering an initial allocation of about $126 million to be spent on health care, utilities and support for needy families. The funding mechanism is expected to be operating by early July.

An EU statement said the plan was drawn up in consultation with the United States, Russia and the United Nations, who agreed with the EU in May that a mechanism had to be found to keep the Palestinian economy afloat.

"We Europeans are determined to play our part in preventing a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories," said EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who is to travel to the Middle East on Monday to present the plan.

Regev declined to comment on the specifics of the plan until it is presented next week. "Israel has consistently supported the international community's direct support for the Palestinian people, support that will bypass the Hamas government," he said.

Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat, a confidant of Abbas, welcomed the EU initiative, but expressed disappointment that Palestinian workers would not receive salaries.

"Any help that will alleviate this human catastrophe is very much needed. But I had hoped that the mechanism would involve the salaries of the 160,000 workers. We don't want to turn our society into a welfare society," he said.

The Hamas-led government's information minister, Youssef Rizka, criticized the EU for bowing to U.S. pressure and for attempts to bypass Hamas while distributing aid.

"This is regrettable. We were, as a government and a people, expecting that the Europeans, who have more knowledge of the Palestinian people and reality, would take a more positive position," he said.

Fatah and Hamas officials have been holding talks aimed at ending weeks of infighting that have left more than 20 people dead. On Friday, a Hamas militant died from wounds sustained in a clash with Fatah gunmen on June 4.

Abbas has called on Hamas to endorse a plan implicitly recognizing Israel as a way to end the political deadlock. The two sides are still negotiating. But if the talks fail, Abbas has called a July 26 referendum on the plan.