Published December 24, 2008
JERUSALEM – Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip bombarded southern Israel with dozens of mortars and rockets on Wednesday, sowing panic and despair there and burdening diplomatic efforts to revive an expired truce.
No Israelis were injured in the barrages. The attacks took a steeper toll in Gaza as explosives apparently misfired, wounding three civilians and killing two militants. One of the injured civilians works for a conflict resolution center.
Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, said the bombardment came in retaliation for the deaths of three fighters in a clash with Israeli troops late Tuesday. Israel said the militants were planting explosives along the Gaza border fence.
About 60 rockets and mortars pelted southern Israel by midafternoon Wednesday, the military said. No injuries were reported, but a factory, a home and other structures were damaged. Rockets reached as far as Beit Hagdi, a small community about 10 miles from Gaza City, the military said.
"We heard the alarm and the whistling as it approached, and then we heard a big explosion," said Benny Gueta, whose windows were shattered by a projectile in Ashkelon, 11 miles from the Gaza border.
"We can't live this way," Gueta told Israel Radio.
A rocket slammed directly into a house in the small community of Tkuma seconds after a father rushed his children from the living room into a bomb shelter.
The living room wall had a gaping hole and was sprayed with shrapnel. Toys lay covered in rubble and dust. A crib was pocked by shrapnel and filled with pieces of concrete.
In Gaza, meanwhile, health officials said Iyad Dremly, a Palestinian attorney who works for the Palestinian Center for Conflict Resolution, was badly wounded in an explosion that ripped through his two-story apartment building in Gaza City.
Militants were firing rockets and mortars from the area, but the military said it did not carry out any attacks on Gaza, suggesting the blast was caused by misfired explosives.
Two other civilians were hurt when a rocket landed on another house several miles to the north in Beit Lahiya, the health officials reported. Before dawn, two militants were killed in southern Gaza by an explosive they were preparing, Hamas reported.
Before the violence escalated, Israel had agreed to open cargo crossings with Gaza on Wednesday to allow in a limited amount of food, medicines and fuel, including supplies from Egypt. But military spokesman Peter Lerner said the passages would remain closed in light of the militant barrages.
Israel has maintained a strict blockade of Gaza since the June 19 cease-fire began unraveling six weeks ago, allowing in only small quantities of essential goods. Egypt has also sealed its border crossing with the territory, which is Gaza's main gateway to the outside world.
The sanctions have deepened the destitution in Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians who are confined to their tiny coastal strip. Gazans have worked around the blockade by bringing in goods through tunnels dug under the Gaza-Egypt border.
Amid the violence, both sides have expressed willingness to consider reviving the truce that lapsed on Friday. Egypt, which mediated the original cease-fire, is leading the diplomatic push to renew it, and on Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Wednesday's violence "unfortunate and difficult" and encouraged a renewal of the truce.
"Our people are facing attacks and blockade, we are making all efforts for a full truce and for the security situation to calm down," he said.
Alongside talk of restoring the truce, Israel is preparing for a large-scale military campaign against Gaza militants.
Israeli leaders have approved such an operation, but are reluctant to press ahead with a campaign likely to exact heavy casualties on both sides. Past incursions have not halted the barrages, and defense and political officials fear anything short of a reoccupation of Gaza would fail to achieve the desired results.
Israel left Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, though it still controls its border crossings.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said Israeli patience was running thin: "Our position is clear, quiet will be met with quiet but attacks against our civilians will be met by Israeli action to defend our people."