GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli tanks and warplanes bombarded targets across the Gaza Strip on Thursday, stepping up pressure on Palestinian militants after a long-range rocket was fired into Israel. At least nine people were killed.
Three civilians were among those killed, Palestinian medical officials said. More than 30 people were wounded, including five children. A 14-year-old boy was in critical condition.
The fighting came days before President Bush's visit to the region, part of his efforts to push Israel and the Palestinians into a final peace agreement during his last year in office.
Palestinian officials said Israel's offensive threatened to undermine Bush's visit.
"We consider what's going on in Gaza ... as a bloody Israeli message in which Israel shirks itself of any commitment before the arrival of President Bush to the region," said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas.
"They are killing the spirit of the Annapolis conference," he added, referring to the November meeting in Annapolis, Md., where Israel and the Palestinians formally relaunched peace talks.
While negotiating with the moderate Abbas, Israel frequently attacks the Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire from the area. The militant group Hamas has ruled Gaza since routing Abbas' forces in June. Abbas controls only the West Bank.
In published comments Thursday, Bush said he would not let a future Palestinian state become a base for attacks on Israel.
"I won't lend a hand to the establishment of a terror state on the borders of Israel," Bush told Yediot newspaper, which said the full interview would be published Friday.
Meanwhile, Jordan's King Abdullah II met with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and reiterated Jordan's opposition to Israeli plans for building settlements on Palestinian territory.
During talks in the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, Abdullah urged Israel "to halt unilateral activities that may obstruct progress" toward peace, according to a statement from the Royal Palace.
Olmert's brief visit — the Israeli leader left Aqaba shortly after the talks — came a day after Abdullah met with Abbas, also in Aqaba, to discuss ways to push the talks forward.
In the past month, Israel has killed dozens of Palestinian militants in Gaza. But Thursday's fighting was some of the heaviest so far.
The Israeli army said the target of the airstrikes were buildings used by militants, including one weapons storehouse. The attacks were in response to the firing of a rocket at Ashkelon, a city of 120,000, earlier in the day, the army said.
The rocket traveled about 10 miles, one of the longest distances reached by the projectiles, said Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. He said the rocket was a Katyusha — one of a handful fired into Israel by Palestinian militants, who rely almost entirely on crude homemade weapons with shorter ranges.
"The Palestinians have attacked a major Israeli city ... and thus have upped the ante," said government spokesman David Baker. "Israel will not allow any cities to be attacked by Palestinian rocket fire."
In the bloodiest attack, an Israeli tank shell hit the home of a militant in the southern town of Khan Younis, killing the man as well as his sister, mother and brother.
After the shelling, the three-story house leaned to one side, barely standing, as an Israeli bulldozer worked nearby. Witnesses said the forces also demolished a chicken coop and two greenhouses, witnesses said.
The Israeli army said troops had fired at militants who were shooting at them from houses.
The fighting began after midnight when Israeli forces, including 10 tanks, raided an area east of Khan Younis, sparking exchanges of fire with Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants, witnesses said.
When troops became trapped in one area, Israeli aircraft fired at least nine missiles, the witnesses said. Two militants were killed and nine wounded in the airstrikes, doctors said.
During the effort to save the troops, Israeli tanks fired heavy machine guns, and three children were injured, witnesses and doctors said.
A limp 14-year-old boy with a mangled foot was rushed to a hospital operating room while a militant masked in black was wheeled into the building on a stretcher. Doctors said the boy was in critical condition.
Palestinian officials said a Hamas militant was killed in other fighting and a Palestinian man kept in jail at a Hamas base in the nearby town of Rafah was killed in an airstrike.
Elsewhere in Gaza, Israeli aircraft attacked the homes of two militants killed in earlier fighting. Officials said both structures were empty. But one of the airstrikes in Gaza City wounded nine bystanders, shattered windows of neighboring homes and sent residents in the crowded neighborhood fleeing in panic.
In Gaza City, Hamas said one of its members was killed in an exchange of fire with Israeli troops. The army was looking into the report.
Israel frequently launches airstrikes and brief ground incursions in Gaza to strike at militants involved in launching rockets and mortars toward southern Israel. The rockets have killed 12 Israelis in the past six years.
Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees claimed responsibility for Thursday's rocket fire, pledging to strike even farther into Israel. "We are going to launch more strikes in the depth of the entity," they said in a joint statement.
In the West Bank, the Israeli army raided the city of Nablus with at least 50 jeeps in its largest operation there in about four months. Palestinian security forces have deployed around the city of about 150,000 in recent weeks, trying to impose order in the community known for anti-Israeli activity.
In the Israeli operation, troops imposed a curfew on Nablus' center, preventing most shops from opening and prompting most children to stay home from school, witnesses said. The army said troops were searching for militants.