Israel launches air strikes on Gaza Strip after rocket attacks

After acts of violence on both sides, concerns grow that a grave new round of hostilities will fill the vacuum left by an impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

JERUSALEM // Israeli aircraft struck the Gaza Strip yesterday in response to militant rocket and mortar attacks, stoking concerns that a grave new round of hostilities will fill the vacuum left by an impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Two years of relative calm have been unravelling in recent weeks with acts of violence from both sides. A deadly bombing in Jerusalem on Wednesday killed a British tourist and Israel has targeted Gaza militants, which in one case killed four Palestinian civilians.

Militants operating near the Israeli border sent at least nine rockets and mortars, including two rockets that reached the city of Ashdod, flying at Israeli communities throughout the day, drawing an Israeli air strike in retaliation. No injuries were reported on either side.

The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, called the rocket attacks "repugnant" and defended the Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip as legitimate self-defence.

He spoke during a meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, who said that "Israel will not tolerate these terror attacks and we will not allow terror to rise once again in the region".

Israel's inability to halt the rocket fire has drawn public criticism, especially since Israel has spent an estimated US$200 million (Dh735m) developing a system that is meant to shoot down the short-range rockets that militants use.

Although officials have repeatedly promised the Iron Dome is ready to be deployed, it so far has not been used in the field.

The home front minister, Matan Vilnai, who oversees civil defence, refused to discuss the hold-up in an interview on Israel Radio yesterday.

Israeli security officials have said little about the investigations into Wednesday's bus stop bombing and the knife killings of five members of a family in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank two weeks ago.

Officials identified the victim of the Jerusalem bombing Thursday as Mary Jean Gardner, a 59-year-old British tourist who had been taking courses at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said there were gag orders preventing discussion of either investigation. He said only that Jerusalem police remained on a heightened state of alert.

In Gaza yesterday, three Palestinians were moderately injured when Israeli artillery opened fire on the Zeitun district in eastern Gaza City, while a militant was lightly wounded during an air strike in northern Gaza targeting a group trying to fire rockets into Israel.

The rocket fire on Ashdod came a day after the Al Quds Brigades promised to fire more at cities deep inside Israel as it entered "a new phase" of resistance.

"The Al Quds Brigade has entered a new phase of bombing targets which are further away, where thousands of Israelis live," group spokesman Abu Ahmad said.

Despite Hamas's pledge to rein in militants firing on Israel, Islamic Jihad's leadership insisted it would not stop its "resistance" unless Israel did the same.

"The question of whether or not the resistance will be intensified is tied to developments on the ground, and the resistance cannot stop responding if the aggression continues," the group said in a statement.

After the threats issued by Islamic Jihad's military wing, Palestinian security forces arrested five of the group's senior political figures in the West Bank overnight.

The wave of violence has been the fiercest since Israel went to war in Hamas-ruled Gaza more than two years ago to try to curb years of frequent rocket attacks.

Yesterday, Israel filed a complaint with the UN about the attacks on its citizens.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, warned militants not to test Israel's "iron will" and vowed a tough response. But he also expressed hope that calm would be restored.

Neither side is thought to be spoiling for a major fight, but the concern is that events will spiral out of control.

In late December 2008, Israel responded to months of rocket fire with a fierce three-week offensive into Gaza, killing about 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians. Thirteen Israelis also died.

The Hamas movement that rules Gaza has largely honoured an unofficial truce since then. But the lull has been fraying in recent weeks - and at a particularly fragile diplomatic moment.

Peace talks between Israel and Hamas' rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, collapsed after the 2008 war broke out, reviving only briefly for three weeks in September 2010.

With no signs that the two sides are making any progress to resume peacemaking, Mr Abbas is pushing to get the international community to recognise a Palestinian state by the autumn in the absence of a peace deal.

Such recognition at the United Nations would not change things on the ground, but could further isolate Israel.

Mr Abbas, who controls only the West Bank, has repeatedly rejected violence and condemned Wednesday's bombing.

Hamas, which wrested control of Gaza in fighting with Abbas loyalists in June 2007, sees the diplomatic standstill as proof that only an armed struggle against Israel will win the Palestinians a state.

* Associated Press with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse