GAZA CITY – The Israeli military killed seven members of Hamas on Friday in rocket strikes that renewed Israel’s policy of assassinating militant Palestinian leaders and effectively marked the end of a five-month truce.
Three Hamas fighters were killed when an Apache helicopter and ground troops fired into a hillside redoubt near Salfit, a town in the northern West Bank. Soon after, an Israeli drone aircraft fired a missile into a van in Gaza City, killing four Hamas members, the group said. More than a dozen bystanders were also killed, according to hospital officials here.
The military wing of Hamas, known formally as the Islamic Resistance Movement, has fired more than 100 mortar shells and rockets into Israel and Jewish settlements in Gaza in recent days, one of which killed a 22-year-old Israeli woman Thursday.
The day’s violence ostensibly ended the cease-fire agreed to in February by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who in the past two days has moved against the armed Palestinian groups that are threatening the Israeli evacuation from Gaza next month and his own hold on power. Hamas had pledged to adhere to the truce.
Israeli officials said this week’s suicide bombing in the Israeli city of Netanya, which killed five people, and the rocket strike that killed the 22-year-old in a town just outside Gaza’s northern border required a harsh response.
“Since the Palestinian Authority was doing zero, it left us no choice,” said Gideon Meir, a senior official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “There never was a truce. There were commitments that the Palestinians did not keep. We could never accept a truce with terrorist organizations.”
The agreement, which had brought relative calm in recent months, called on the Palestinian leadership to move against armed groups opposed to Israel’s right to exist. In return, Israel agreed to end its policy of assassination that has decimated the Hamas leadership during the uprising, or intifada, that began in September 2000. Israel last used helicopter gunships to kill radical Palestinian leaders 10 months ago.
Abbas declared a state of emergency here Thursday and ordered his security forces to act against Hamas fighters firing rockets into southern Israel. Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Abbas’ dominant political movement, Fatah, asserted responsibility for the Thursday rocket strike on the town of Netiv Haasara, just outside Gaza’s northern border.
Overnight fighting between Hamas and Palestinian security forces continued into Friday morning in the streets here. Two children were killed in the cross fire. Near a busy interchange, Hamas gunmen fired on Palestinian police and destroyed an armored personnel carrier with a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades. They burned a police station and a Palestinian Authority office building a few blocks away before the fighting waned. Palestinian policemen have been ordered to wear masks to shield their identities and protect their families from reprisal.
“The Palestinian Authority should be on the side of the Palestinian people, protecting them from Israeli aggression, not on the side of Israel’s settlements,” said Sami Abu Zohri, a Hamas spokesman here. Hamas called Friday for the firing of Interior Minister Nasser Yusef, whom the group blames for ordering Palestinian security forces against its military wing, the Iz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades.
“We are going to respond by protecting our people against anyone who tries to attack them,” Abu Zohri said.
Israeli military officials had promised a swift response against the radical Islamic Jihad group following the Netanya suicide bombing, which killed five Israelis outside a shopping mall earlier this week. The increasing Palestinian attacks in recent days, many of them met with Israeli military reprisals, have added pressure on Sharon to strike back as he prepares to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank next month, a process known as disengagement.
The flare-up comes as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to arrive in the region next Friday to meet with the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Palestinian officials said the Israeli missile strikes, which came hours after the gunfights here subsided, undermined their efforts to corral the armed groups. Israel has demanded that Abbas do so as part of the truce. But it is a difficult task, given Hamas’ rising strength and the Palestinian Authority’s decreasing popularity among much of the public.
“This came when we were seeing the most significant attempt by the Palestinian Authority to establish rule of law in Gaza,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel. “What kind of message does this send?”
Hamas, which operates a network of social services as well, rejected the 1993 Oslo peace accords the Palestinians signed with Israel. But it has fared well in recent local elections, and Abbas recently invited Hamas to join a national unity government in the run-up to Israel’s evacuation of Gaza, where Hamas is strongest. Hamas leaders declined the offer.
“Those who want authority must do so through elections,” Erekat said. “We have come to the point of no return.”
A crowd gathered in the grassy courtyard of Shifa Hospital where many of the day’s wounded had been brought. Loudspeakers from the minaret across the street blared messages of resistance. “They are shooting us again,” the voice shouted, later encouraging more rocket attacks on Israel and the Gaza settlements. Palestinian rocket strikes in the Neveh Dekalim settlement, the largest in Gaza, injured two people Friday and destroyed five houses.