Israel vows no let-up in strikes on militants

Israel on Tuesday vowed to continue its policy of targeting Palestinian militants after the air force conducted a third deadly strike on the Gaza Strip in less than three days.

Seven Palestinian militants have been killed in a series of air strikes since Sunday, sparked by rocket attacks on Israel, in the worst cycle of violence since radical Islamist group Hamas won a massive election victory.

Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said the army would continue to target anyone who threatened the safety of Israeli citizens.

“We will continue to carry out these essential operations as long as they are needed against all organisations who dare to threaten the security of Israeli citizens,” he told army radio.

The latest militants to be killed were two members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a lawless offshoot of the beleagured Fatah party that was heavily defeated in the last month’s election.

Hassan Asfur (25) and Rami Hanuna (28) were killed when a missile ploughed into their vehicle in northern Gaza on Monday, bringing to 4 946 the number of people killed in the last five-year intifada, based on an Agence France-Presse count. More than three-quarters of them have been Palestinian.

An Israeli military spokesperson said the targets were “terrorists who were preparing to fire rockets against Israel”.

On Tuesday, a helicopter fired deterrent gunfire against a suspicious figure in the Gaza Strip and a Palestinian rocket slammed into a house in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, damaging the building, army radio reported.

In the West Bank, two Israeli soldiers were wounded during armed exchanges with Palestinian militants holed up in the flashpoint northern city of Nablus, military sources said.

The shootout flared after special forces surrounded a house in which a senior member of the radical Palestinian movement Islamic Jihad was believed to be hiding, after around 15 jeeps entered the city, Palestinian sources said.

Islamic Jihad has been behind all the suicide bombings in Israel in the last year, prompting Israel to carry out a number of targeted killing operations.

The faction called for swift revenge after two of its militants in Gaza—including the master rocket-maker—were assassinated on Sunday.

Israeli aircraft have carried out so-called targeted killing operations in Gaza for three nights in a row, the worst cycle of violence since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had a stroke at the beginning of January and Hamas won last month’s Palestinian poll.

The violence coincides with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s first trip to Washington and talks in Cairo between Hamas leaders on forming a new government.

One senior Hamas leader at the talks, Ismail Haniya, said the militant group was planning to formally ask its political rival Fatah to join a new government.

After their crushing defeat, leaders of the long-dominant Fatah movement of Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas ruled out joining a coalition with Hamas, whose election victory triggered alarm in Israel and the West.

“We are going to sit down with them and officially propose that they take part in the government,” said Haniya.

“We are awaiting the official response from the Fatah leadership,” Haniya was quoted as saying by the news agency Mena after a meeting with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.

Haniya and fellow Hamas leaders Mahmud Zahar and the group’s exiled supremo Khaled Meshaal, were in Cairo to discuss the formation of a new government and review candidates for the post of prime minister.

Amid warnings from the European Union and United States that funding for the Palestinian Authority will dry up unless Hamas renounces violence and recognises Israel, Zahar has said he expects talks with Brussels in six months.

“In six months the EU will talk to us, the world need not be afraid of Hamas,” Zahar, one possible prime minister, said in an interview in the German Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. - AFP

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