RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // Hamas officials yesterday dismissed Israeli threats of a major Gaza invasion after a senior Israeli minister warned of "another military operation" on Israel army radio. The threat came after Israeli warplanes and helicopters struck half a dozen targets around the Gaza Strip in the early hours yesterday. Palestinian sources say the missiles struck a metal workshop, farms, a guardhouse and a cheese factory. In the latter strike, in Sabra, a residential neighbourhood of Gaza City, three children, Malak Mas'ad al Arabid, one, her brother Sa'ad, four, and Abdul Rahman Sarsur, 11, a cousin, were injured.
The strikes mark a further deterioration of the calm along the Gaza border that has otherwise held, by and large, for more than a year since Israel's offensive there in late December 2008. By general consensus, the calm has been well enforced by Hamas, but in the last week there have been a number of skirmishes between Palestinian fighters and the Israeli army, notably last Friday, when an Israeli military incursion into Gazan territory resulted in a clash that left two Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers dead.
On Tuesday, a Palestinian teenager was killed and several others were wounded as Israeli troops fired on protesters near the border of the blockaded territory. The Israeli army said the air strikes early yesterday came in retaliation for a mortar strike on Thursday from Gaza into Israel that no Palestinian group claimed responsibility for and in which no one was injured. Another homemade rocket was launched yesterday after the Israeli strikes. Again no injuries were reported.
Silvan Shalom, Israel's deputy prime minister, warned yesterday that the military would launch a new offensive on the Gaza Strip unless the rocket fire ended. "If this rocket fire against Israel does not stop, it seems we will have to raise the level of our activity and step up our actions against Hamas," Mr Shalom told army radio. "We won't allow frightened children to again be raised in bomb shelters and so, in the end, it will force us to launch another military operation."
But Ahmed Yousef, deputy foreign minister in the Hamas government, said he did not believe Israel was interested in any major escalation at a time of US-Israeli tensions, heightened international scrutiny of Israel as a result of the Goldstone report into its army's conduct during the 2008-2009 Gaza war, as well as a desire to keep the international community focused on Iran. He said yesterday's strikes were partly domestic Israeli politics, a signal by the current government to Israelis that it had acted to avenge its two slain soldiers, killed in last Friday's clash. Partly, they were an attempt at provoking Hamas.
"I think Israel is just trying to test Hamas's intentions and capabilities after a long calm," Mr Yousef said yesterday. "I think Israel misinterpreted Hamas's willingness to keep Gaza calm as a sign of weakness." In a statement issued a few hours after the air strikes, Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, said Hamas had contacted the other Palestinian factions in Gaza to confirm support for the "internal consensus", meaning a continued commitment to the truce.
Mr Yousef said there continued to be co-operation between the Palestinian groups to "co-ordinate any reaction to Israeli incursions or aggression". But they would "remain careful in their reactions and would remain wary of providing Israel justification to escalate the situation". The tension along the Gaza border has coincided with growing friction in the West Bank. Yesterday, a Palestinian woman was killed when her car was struck by a settler's car, near Ramallah. The Israeli police said the collision was an accident, but Palestinian witnesses told the Maan news agency that it had been deliberate.
The incident came as settlers across the West Bank marked the Jewish Passover holiday. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org