Militants launch rocket at Israeli city
(AP) - Palestinian militants in Gaza launched a rocket Tuesday at the Israeli city of Ashkelon, causing no injuries but threatening to upset a recent period of calm.Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had left Ashkelon a short time before the rocket hit.
It landed in an open area south of the city of 120,000 people, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
The attack came during a lull in intense fighting between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza that recently left three Israelis and 120 Palestinians dead, including dozens of civilians.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a tiny militant group, claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attack. But Israel held Gaza's Hamas rulers responsible.
"Hamas controls Gaza and they are responsible for every missile fired from Gaza into Israel. We have no illusions as to the extreme and hateful agenda of Hamas," said government spokesman Mark Regev.
During the recent fighting, dozens of rockets hit Israel every day, including many that targeted Ashkelon. It was the first time the coastal town was heavily bombarded by Palestinian militants.
Israel ended an offensive in Gaza last week, and militants scaled back their rocket fire. Egypt has been serving as a mediator between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers, but both sides denied there was an official cease-fire in place.
Palestinian attacks on Israelis, along with ongoing Israeli construction in areas claimed by the Palestinians, have strained the latest U.S. peace push in the region. With U.S backing, the sides hope to forge a final agreement by the end of the year.
The lead Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qureia, said Tuesday that Israel has endangered the struggling peace process with a new plan to build hundreds of homes in disputed east Jerusalem and in a West Bank settlement near Jerusalem. The plans also have received harsh international criticism.
"These violations could lead to the destruction of the peace process," Qureia told reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. "Instead of focusing on the peace process, (Israel) focuses on settlement expansion."
Qureia said he would raise the matter with retired U.S. Lt. Gen. William Fraser III, the American envoy in charge of monitoring implementation of the internationally backed "road map" peace plan. Fraser is scheduled to hold his first joint meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials on Friday, Palestinian officials said.
The Palestinians claim the West Bank and east Jerusalem - areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war - as parts of a future independent state.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem immediately after the war and says it is entitled to build anywhere in the city. Olmert has declared a partial settlement freeze in the West Bank, but allowed construction to proceed in areas he hopes to retain under a final peace agreement.
Regev, the Israeli spokesman, said that 350 planned homes in the West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev are in an area Israel intends to keep, but also said Olmert couldn't have halted the construction even if he wanted to since the project was first approved in 1999.
"We would have faced serious legal problems from the developers" if the government tried to block the project, Regev said.
Olmert has been under heavy domestic pressure to allow settlement activity to proceed. Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party in his coalition, has threatened to topple Olmert's fragile government if he makes too many concessions to the Palestinians.
Roi Lachmanovitch, a spokesman for Shas leader Eli Yishai, said their party had pressured Olmert to allow the Givat Zeev construction to resume.
In a radio interview, Yishai said the party is pushing a new plan to build 800 homes in east Jerusalem in response to last week's shooting attack that killed eight students at a Jewish seminary in the city.
Yishai said the new homes would be built next to the Palestinian neighborhood where the shooter lived as a symbolic response to "the murder of eight saints who died to sanctify God's name."
Haim Oron, a dovish opposition lawmaker, accused Yishai of "preventing any chance of moving forward in a peace process."
The U.S., EU, and Egypt have all criticized the latest Israeli settlement construction.
The road map, the basis of the peace talks, sets out a staged process leading to an independent Palestinian state. As initial steps, it calls on Israel to freeze all settlement activity and requires the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups.
Neither side has met its obligations, and talks have repeatedly run into trouble since their launch at a summit in Annapolis, Md., last November.