Israel Airstrike Hits Hamas Leader's House

Israel threatened Sunday to keep attacking Islamic militants in response to rocket fire from Gaza and hours later, an air force plane fired a missile at the house of a Hamas leader and killed eight people, witnesses and hospital officials said.

Israeli air attacks on Islamic militant targets earlier in the day killed another three Palestinians.

The attack on the house was the deadliest airstrike since last Tuesday when Israel started reprisals for the rocket barrages.

Residents said the house belonged to a Hamas lawmaker Khalil al-Haya, and six of the dead were members of his family. Al-Haya was not at home and was not harmed, they said. He was one of the Hamas representatives in cease-fire talks with Fatah and was attending an Egyptian-sponsored truce meeting just before the strike, residents said.

The missile hit a room used as a meeting place for the extended family, relatives said. Hospital officials said eight people were killed and 13 injured.

The Israeli military confirmed it carried out an airstrike but gave no details.

Despite a sixth straight day of strikes, Gaza militants fired at least 12 rockets at southern Israel. Several exploded in the battered town of Sderot, causing damage but no serious injuries. One destroyed a popular Indian restaurant in a nearby village at nightfall.

The decision by Israel's Security Cabinet to keep up attacks was aimed at the two main Islamic militant groups in Gaza.

"The operations will focus on Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, who are responsible for the current escalation," the government said in a statement, but stopped short of approving a large-scale ground invasion.

After the Security Cabinet meeting, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said Israel would not differentiate between militant and political leaders in its strikes.

"Everyone who deals with terror against us should take cover," Dichter told Channel 2 TV. The Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, is from Hamas, but analysts said he was not a likely target.

An Israeli air force plane fired a missile at the house of a Hamas leader after sundown Sunday, witnesses said. There was no immediate word of casualties. Residents said the house belonged to a local Hamas commander, but they did not give his name. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

Earlier Sunday at a Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned the strikes could intensify.

"If the diplomatic and military efforts we have taken do not bring calm, will have to escalate our response," he said.

He planned to reconvene his Security Cabinet, a decision-making body of top ministers, later Sunday.

After sundown, Israel fired a shell at northern Gaza after militants fired rockets, Palestinian security officials said. No one was hurt. The Israeli military said a tank aimed a shell at a rocket squad.

Three people, including at least one Hamas militant, were killed Sunday in an airstrike on a car in Gaza City. The vehicle burst into a ball of flame, witnesses said. The army attributed the fireball to weapons in the car.

In another airstrike, Israel said it targeted an Islamic Jihad weapons workshop in northern Gaza, but the shop owner said his stereo and video store was apparently hit by mistake.

Israel's bombardment appears to have pushed Palestinians to calm bloody factional fighting in Gaza. A truce between warring Palestinian factions took hold after a week of fierce fighting.

Hamas and Fatah issued a joint statement Sunday ordering their gunmen to observe the truce.

"We warn all those who commit a violation that they will be held accountable," it said.

Masked gunmen who had controlled the streets and taken over apartment buildings in the previous week scaled back their presence, and residents who had holed up at home ventured out to stock up on supplies at busy shops.

Children went back to school in time for final exams, and adults returned to work.

More than 50 Palestinians were killed in factional clashes that broke out after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah stationed thousands of loyalist security forces in Gaza City without consulting Hamas, Fatah's partner in the Palestinian governing alliance.

Israel added an overlapping layer of violence by sending warplanes after Hamas rocket squads whose attacks on Israeli border towns have sown panic and sent thousands fleeing to safer ground. The airstrikes have killed another 35 Palestinians.

One option Israel is considering is deploying an international force along Gaza's border with Egypt to curb weapons smuggling and possibly to disarm militants, a Foreign Ministry official said.

Olmert's already shaky internal standing took another blow Sunday when hardline Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to pull his small party out of the government unless a large-scale operation is ordered against Hamas.

"Either Hamas is going to be dismantled, or the government is going to be dismantled," Lieberman said in a statement. "This is not an ultimatum, but these are the options." Olmert would still have a small majority if Lieberman quit.

Olmert has lost much of his public support because of the inconclusive outcome of last summer's war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

At the Vatican on Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI denounced the Palestinian rocket salvos and the factional fighting, and appealed for Israel to exercise restraint.

"The clashes among Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip and the rocket attacks against inhabitants of the nearby Israeli cities, which prompted armed intervention, are provoking a bloody deterioration of the situation," Benedict told pilgrims in St. Peter's Square. "In the name of God, I beg that an end be put to this tragic violence."