Israeli air strikes kill 2 Hamas activists

RAMALLAH — Israeli air strikes yesterday killed two members of the Izzedine Al Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, while a Palestinian rocket, claimed by the brigades, seriously wounded an Israeli in the town of Sderot on the border with Gaza.

The killings brought to 14 the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli fire in the last four days, including seven beachgoers Friday, among them three children, who died when an Israeli artillery shell slammed into the beachfront in the southern Strip.

Israel has said the killings were a mistake though has not admitted full responsibility. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday promised an “honest investigation” into the shelling, but told the Israeli Cabinet he “categorically rejects all the attempts to impugn the morality of the Israeli army.”

“The Israel Defence Forces is the most moral army in the world. It has never conducted a policy of harming civilians, and is not doing so today,” Olmert, who is about to visit Britain and France, said.

Hours after the beach killings, Hamas announced an end to the truce it has observed since March 2005. Since then, the movement  said it has fired around three dozen rockets into Israel, mostly towards Sderot.

“Blood for blood and resistance for violence,” Hamas spokesman Mushir Al Masri said. “The occupation will realise that the blood of martyrs is dear… The enemy will pay a price.”

The escalation coincides with increasing inter-factional Palestinian tension. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has called for a July 26 referendum on the so-called Prisoners’ Document that implicitly recognises Israel, a move rejected by Hamas.

Abbas met with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza on Saturday, and made it clear the vote would be held as planned, an Abbas spokesman said.

But in a further signal that positions on the referendum are hardening, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad signatories to the charter yesterday withdrew their support.

In a statement issued in the Gaza Strip, Abdel Khaleq Natsheh, the top Hamas prisoner held by Israel, said he was no longer a party to the document.

He accused Abbas of “unacceptable abuse” of the document and exploiting it for political gain. He also said it falsely implied there were divisions between Hamas prisoners, politicians in Gaza and the movement’s political leaders in exile.

“The document now is completely a Fateh document,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, who read the statement on behalf of Natsheh and Bassem Al Saadi, the Islamic Jihad prisoner who also withdrew his name.

PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said the withdrawals would make no difference.

“It is the right of the prisoners to retract their support, but they will have to face the consequences of the referendum result,” he said.

Abbas and Haniyeh were expected to meet again late Sunday.

In other developments, an Islamic Jihad activist was killed in an explosion in his home in the northern Gaza Strip, hospital officials said.

Palestinian firefighters said the blast originated inside the house in the town of Jebaliya, and was not the result of an attack, AP reported.

Islamic Jihad said the explosion was caused by Israeli aircraft, but the Israeli army said it knew of no Israeli operation in Jebaliya. Š

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