15 killed, Haniya's office hit, as Gaza violence continues

Israel Materials 3 March 2008 00:21 (UTC +04:00)

Israeli airstrikes killed nine in the Gaza Strip Sunday, bringing the fatality toll among Palestinians to 113 the in five days of fierce tit-for-tat violence, as Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert vowed not to let up "even for a second" Israel's offensive against rocket-firing militants. ( dpa )

The latest airstrike came in the late evening, killing a Hamas militant in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza.

According to health ministry officials in Gaza, at least 26 of those killed since Wednesday were children younger than 18 years.

However, the Israeli chief of staff said earlier Sunday that 90 per cent of those killed were militants, mostly from Hamas.

In all, 14 people were declared dead in Gaza Sunday, including two women found under rubble who were killed a day earlier, and three people who succumbed to their wounds, medics said.

A fifteenth Palestinian, a 13-year-old, was shot dead in the afternoon during a rock-throwing protest in Hebron against the Gaza fighting, while similar demonstrations against Israeli actions in the Gaza Strip were held elsewhere in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

Two Israeli soldiers have also been killed since the latest round of fighting broke out on Wednesday, when Israel killed five Hamas militants it said were on their way to launch an attack, and militant groups responded by intensifying their rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel.

By mid-afternoon Sunday, more than 180 projectiles had been launched since Wednesday, including long-range Grad rockets which struck at the coastal city of Ashqelon, some 15 kilometres north of the salient, placing over 100,000 Israelis within range of the militant's missiles.

The Israeli military said that over 30 rockets were fired from Gaza on Sunday alone, including four Grad rockets, some of which hit homes in southern Israel causing light injuries.

Olmert, who has faced increasing pressure to find a way to end the almost-daily rocket fire on towns and villages adjacent to the Strip, told his ministers at Sunday's cabinet session in Jerusalem that "if somebody thinks that by extending the rockets' range, he will succeed in deterring us from our activity, he is gravely mistaken."

A government statement quoted the premier as saying: "We will act in accordance with the outline that the government will decide on, with the means that we decide on, at the timing we decide on, with the strength we decide on, without respite in order to strike at the terrorist organizations."

The Gaza fighting was at its heaviest Saturday, when 64 Palestinians and the two Israeli soldiers were killed. Israel launched eight airstrikes overnight, including one on the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniya.

No injuries were reported in that raid, but witnesses said severe damage was caused to the three-storey building by the two air-to- ground missiles.

Haniya, who continues to call himself Palestinian prime minister despite being sacked last June by President Mahmoud Abbas, has reportedly gone into hiding for fear of assassination by Israel in retaliation for the Hamas-sponsored rocket attacks.

An Israeli military spokeswoman in Tel Aviv said the other Israeli airstrikes were on three buildings believed to be arms dumps, three buildings thought to be production facilities for the makeshift rockets, and on a gunman in the northern Strip.

Since the escalation began Wednesday, Israel has been targeting buildings belonging to Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for most of the latest rocket attacks.

The intense escalation in fighting also led Abbas to declare a freeze on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which restarted in December after a seven-year hiatus.

Olmert told his ministers Sunday that the Gaza fighting notwithstanding, Israel was "interested in continuing the diplomatic negotiations."

"When the diplomatic negotiations began, we made it clear they would not, in any way, be at the expense of our right to defend the residents of Israel against the intolerable actions of the terrorist organizations," he said.

The premier added that that the more Hamas, which rejects Israel's right to exist in favour of an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, "is hit, the greater the chances of reaching a diplomatic agreement and peace."

"It is clear to me that the Palestinian leadership with whom we are trying to make peace, understands this," he said.