Israel bombs Gaza after new rocket fire

Israeli aircraft bombed Gaza on Sunday hours after its leaders vowed to deal a blow to Hamas in response to new rocket fire two weeks following the end of a bloody war in the Palestinian enclave.

A general view shows tents erected to house Palestinians who lost their homes during the 22-day Israeli offensive in Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip on February 1, 2009. (AFP Photo)

Israeli aircraft targeted an empty police station in central Gaza and at least seven tunnels along the Islamist Hamas-ruled enclave's southern border with Egypt, witnesses said.

There were no reports of casualties in the strikes on the police station and the tunnels, used for importing weapons and goods from Egypt into the Gaza Strip where Israel enforces a punishing blockade.

An Israeli security official said that "the air force has carried out several strikes across the Gaza Strip."

According to witnesses, hundreds of Palestinian workers involved in tunnel construction in southern Gaza fled to the Egyptian side of the border shortly after the start of the air strikes.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert earlier vowed to deal "a severe and disproportionate Israeli response" to Palestinian rocket fire against southern Israel since a January 18 ceasefire brought an end to its 22-day war on Gaza.

Israel's offensive devastated the impoverished territory, as hundreds of houses, government compounds and public buildings were destroyed in the attacks where more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed.

Palestinian militants in Gaza fired more than 10 rockets and mortar rounds onto southern Israel on Sunday, wounding one civilian and two soldiers, an army spokesman told AFP.

The renewed air strikes come nine days before Israelis go to the polls.

"We will act according to new rules that will guarantee that we are not dragged into an incessant tit-for-tat war that will not allow normal life in the south of the country," Olmert said at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting.

"The response will come at the time, the place and the manner that we choose."

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that "Hamas was given a very serious blow and if necessary it will be given another blow."

Hamas slammed the Israeli threats as a "campaign stunt" before the election.

"This is an attempt... to destroy the Egyptian efforts to improve the calm," spokesman Taher al-Nunu said in Gaza.

The Hamas spokesman did not say whether the Islamists who rule Gaza were behind the rocket fire, but called on "all groups to respect the national decision concerning the ground situation in Gaza."

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a group loosely linked to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for firing two projectiles on Sunday.

In all, at least 15 rockets had been fired since mutual ceasefires by Israel and Hamas on January 18 ended Israel's massive three-week onslaught launched with the aim of halting rocket fire from Gaza. Thirteen Israelis were killed during the offensive.

Egypt has been leading international efforts to consolidate the ceasefires into a lasting truce, and Abbas was in Cairo on Sunday for talks on the situation. Hamas officials are also due in the Egyptian capital.

Ahmed Yussef, a senior Hamas member, told AFP that the talks in Cairo were proceeding in a "positive direction," without elaborating.

A senior Israeli defence official would only say that "Israel demands two conditions -- the total cessation of fire and an end to arms smuggling. Israel is only holding talks with Egypt on this issue."

Barak and Tzipi Livni, who are bitterly contesting the upcoming February 10 elections, on Sunday voiced conflicting views on the emerging ceasefire.

"Any thought that we can maintain a calm in the south and more effective action against arms smuggling... without the Egyptians is an illusion detached from reality," Barak said during the cabinet meeting.

But Livni rejected any agreement involving Hamas, which Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organisation.

"A deal with Hamas would give it legitimacy and anyone working towards one with Egypt must understand that," Livni said.

Hamas political supremo Khaled Meshaal on Sunday ruled out any permanent ceasefire until Israel ends a crippling blockade it imposed on Gaza after the Islamists seized power there in June 2007.

But an Israeli official said the Jewish state "is not ready to adhere to any agreement that has a time-limit. We want a deal that will be valid for as long as the sides respect it."

Source: AFP

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