GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli aircraft blasted Hamas government offices and metal shops late Wednesday, killing a baby and wounding more than 30 people in a retaliatory strike after a militant rocket killed an Israeli college student.
The bloodshed fed worries about a new outbreak of heavy fighting between the Israeli army and militants in the Gaza Strip.
Amid the surge of violence, the U.S. government announced that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would visit next week to meet with Palestinian and Israeli leaders to discuss the push to negotiate a peace accord.
Rice commented on the violence early today in Japan where she met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, saying the Hamas rocket attacks against Israel “need to stop.”
Hamas claimed responsibility for the deadly rocket attack on the college in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, which came a few hours after two Israeli airstrikes killed seven people in Gaza, including two senior commanders in the Hamas rocket operation.
After nightfall, a third Israeli strike aimed at a rocket squad in northern Gaza killed two youngsters leaving a mosque, Palestinians said. The Israeli military said it carried out the airstrike but had no knowledge of civilians being hit.
Then Israeli planes attacked the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and the nearby Interior Ministry, both of which were empty. Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders have been in hiding, fearing Israeli assassination attempts.
Palestinian health officials said a 6-month-old baby was killed by shrapnel in the late-night airstrike in Gaza City and about 30 residents of nearby buildings suffered wounds. A few minutes later, Israeli aircraft hit two metal workshops.
The Israeli military said the targets were command posts at the government building and sites where weapons are made and stored. The military blamed Hamas for setting up such operations in populated areas, and said injuries to Palestinian civilians were unintentional.
In all, militants fired at least 40 rockets at Israel on Wednesday, the military said, many more than the average of daily barrages that have disrupted life in the region. Associated Press pictures showed rockets streaking into the sky from a densely populated area of northern Gaza.
One rocket exploded in a parking lot at Sapir College. Israeli officials said a student, a 47-year-old father of four, was killed by shrapnel that struck his heart. Israeli TV stations showed a second man being carried on a stretcher with wounds to his legs.
The student was the first Israeli killed by a rocket since May.
The fatal attack on Sderot intensified calls in Israel for a large-scale ground offensive in Gaza aimed at clearing the border area of rocket squads, though previous incursions have halted such attacks only briefly.
Olmert has ruled out such an invasion for now.
But during a visit to Sderot late Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak vowed to “get those responsible” for the rocket attack.