( AP ) - Gaza militants threatened Saturday to fire longer-range rockets and target larger Israeli communities, after five Hamas members were killed in an Israeli airstrike.
A spokesman for the Islamic Jihad group said its engineers are trying to produce local copies of Russian-made 122mm Katyusha rockets, which have a reach of up to 19 miles, or halfway from Gaza to Tel Aviv.
Israel carries out regular military operations in Gaza, targeting militants launching near-daily rocket barrages into Israel. Its pinpoint airstrikes have intensified in the past week. Some 17 Gaza militants have been killed in strikes or clashes with the army since the US-hosted Mideast conference began Monday in Annapolis, Maryland.
At the meeting, Israel and the Palestinians, in the presence of representatives of nearly 50 states, announced that peace talks would resume after a violent seven-year hiatus.
Hamas and other militant groups have strongly opposed the resumption of peace talks with Israel, saying Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not have the political legitimacy to speak on behalf of Palestinians. Hamas overtook the Gaza Strip by force in June, leaving Abbas in control of only the West Bank.
Hamas says its current barrage of rocket attacks against Israel has been one of the ways of showing its resistance to peace talks. Over the weekend, four rockets and 15 mortars were launched into Israel, the army said.
Early Saturday, an Israeli airstrike killed five Hamas militants near the southern town of Khan Younis. Eight others were wounded, one critically, medical officials said.
Hamas said the men were on a night patrol east of Khan Younis. The army said it carried out the strike after identifying armed men near its border with Gaza.
A senior Hamas official said his group was developing a more lethal type of warhead for the rockets it regularly lobs into Israel, and Abu Mujahed, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, a group allied with Hamas, said his organization had plans to fire longer-range rockets.
"The real barrage of rockets has not yet begun," said Abu Mujahed, whose brother was killed in Saturday's airstrike, adding that "22 kilometers is not the ceiling."
It was an apparent reference to 122mm Katyusha rockets that can hit targets 12 to 19 miles away, about twice the range of the thousands of homemade Qassam projectiles that Gaza militants have fired at Israel communities in recent years.
Katyushas are deadlier than the homemade rockets and put larger Israeli communities near Gaza into rocket range. Netivot, a town of 25,000, is 10 miles northeast of Gaza, and Ashkelon, a port city where 115,000 Israelis live, is about 8 miles away.
Katyusha fire from Gaza has been rare. The Islamic Jihad militant group claims to have fired three Russian-made rockets at Israel since March 2006, and to have "many" in their possession.
Israel estimates that a dozen Katyushas were smuggled into Gaza since it left the strip in September 2005.
Israeli military officials said there has recently been "an improvement in the range and capabilities" of the crude Qassam rocket fire into Israel, adding that militants "have managed to bring in expertise in rocket technology into Gaza."
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
Isaac Ben-Israel, a military expert at Tel Aviv University and a former army general, estimated that militants were continuing to smuggle rockets into the strip.
But Abu Hamza, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, said the group was developing its own industry aimed at extending its rocket range beyond its current 12 miles.
"These are not imported rockets, but are homemade. We have developed the size, propellent and warheads in our rockets. We are working to make them go longer than (18 kilometers)," he said. "They have created a balance of terror."
He said the group's Katyusha engineer, Mohammed al-Dahdouh, was killed in an Israeli strike days after they launched a Katyusha in May 2006, but he had trained others who are working on developing the local prototype that has already reached the outskirts of Ashkelon. He said the group now uses Google Earth and a compass for greater accuracy.