OCCUPIED JERUSALEM â€” Israel yesterday launched an air strike against what its army said were three Hamas members who fired mortars at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip in a second day of increasing tension.
On Tuesday, two Palestinian farmers and one Chinese labourer were killed by Palestinian mortar fire from Gaza after Israel had earlier killed a senior leader of the Islamic Jihad in the West Bank in a shoot-out that also resulted in the death of two other Palestinians, making it the deadliest day since the unofficial truce was agreed upon in Sharm El Sheikh in February. Wednesday’s violence comes as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prepared for talks in Gaza with the opposition factions for the first time since his controversial decision to indefinitely postpone elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). The decision was met with fierce opposition from Hamas, set to run in parliamentary elections for the first time.
Yesterday’s air strike near Khan Younis caused no injuries, and witnesses reported three people fleeing the scene unharmed. The Israeli army said it had struck at the three after they launched a mortar at a nearby settlement and was preparing to fire more.
Israel army radio, meanwhile, reported Wednesday that unnamed officials were lobbying for â€œa crushing blowâ€ against Hamas in the Gaza Strip before the Israeli withdrawal from 21 settlements there, scheduled for August.
New Israeli Chief-of-Staff Dan Halutz, who visited the southern Israeli town of Sderot Tuesday evening, however, said: â€œWe will do whatever is necessary when we decide to do so. There is no doubt that at a certain point our patience will run out.â€
Israeli army officials said Israel would refrain from responding at this time, in order to allow Abbas to handle the crisis himself.
Abbas was preparing for meetings in Gaza late Wednesday and today to discuss the increasing violence and the decision to postpone PLC elections. Hamas is expected to press for a new date for elections to be set at the talks.
Earlier Wednesday, West Bank Hamas leader Mohammed Ghazal said the Islamic resistance movement was ready to talk to European governments and the US but rejected calls for the faction to disarm. Ghazal was speaking a day after Britain’s visiting foreign secretary, Jack Straw, ruled out any contacts with Hamas leaders until the group renounces violence.
Straw met Wednesday with Palestinian officials in the West Bank, saying the Israeli withdrawal plan provides a â€œgreat opportunity and a better chance for Palestinians to change their future for the better.â€
Israeli officials yesterday said half the settlers to be evacuated from Gaza in August had opened talks with the government over compensation for moving, in defiance of settler leaders who have urged settlers not to cooperate with the pullout.
Only some 10 per cent of the settlers have as yet publicly accepted the Israeli government’s proposed compensation scheme, but opinion polls consistently show that a majority of Israelis are in favour of the withdrawal.