Gaza rocket strike wounds dozens of Israeli soldiers

A rocket fired by Gaza militants smashed into an Israeli army base early Tuesday, wounding dozens of sleeping conscripts and heightening pressure on the government to hit the Hamas-ruled territory.

At least 69 soldiers sleeping in tents were wounded when the homemade rocket crashed in the dead of night into the Zikim base in southern Israel not far from the border with Gaza, an army spokesperson and medics said.

It was the bloodiest Palestinian rocket strike from Gaza in months and came days before the start of the Jewish New Year, increasing the pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Cabinet to take action to stop the fire.

The premier was meeting senior ministers and military chiefs to decide on a response to the attack which Hamas — a group sworn to Israel’s destruction — said was an act of “legitimate resistance”.

“Those who carry out these types of attacks, as well as those who support them should know that they are not safe,” Israeli government spokesperson Miri Eisin told Agence France-Presse.

Many of the troops were young conscripts due to complete their basic training on Tuesday.

Anxious parents rushed to the base for news while more than a dozen ambulances and two helicopters were despatched to evacuate the wounded to nearby hospitals.

The vast majority of the troops received only light injuries, one was wounded critically and four seriously, the army said.

The military wing of the radical Islamic Jihad — which launches the majority of rockets into Israel — claimed the attack that it dubbed the “dawn of victory”.

“The resistance is the only alternative to recover our rights and liberate our holy places,” senior Jihad official Abu Hamzeh told a press conference.

Hamas, which seized control of the territory nearly three months ago after a week of bloody battles with the rival Fatah faction of President Mahmud Abbas, praised the strike.

Spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said it was “legitimate resistance in the face of Israeli aggression and the legitimate defence in the face of Israeli crimes”.

Hours after the attack, a Palestinian man and three of his children were wounded when an Israeli tank shell landed on their house in the northern Gaza city of Beit Hanun, medics said.

Militants in Gaza regularly fire rockets into Israel, but they are often inaccurate and most land in open spaces.

Major operation

Twelve civilians have been killed by rocket attacks inside Israel since the start of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000. The last fatalities were in May, when two Israelis died in separate attacks.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned recently that Israel was considering launching deep ground operations in Gaza.

“The time may be approaching where it will necessary to launch a major ground operation to stop the rocket fire,” Barak said.

Israel has been unable to stamp out the rocket fire, despite launching regular strikes and incursions into the crowded and impoverished territory from where it withdrew settlers and soldiers in 2005 after a 38-year occupation.

A major five-month Israeli operation launched inside Gaza last June after militants there seized an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid killed hundreds of Palestinians but failed to bring the rocket attacks to an end.

In the wake of Tuesday’s strike, an Israeli minister called for the United States-sponsored Middle East peace conference expected in November to be postponed.

“Israel must react and the conference that the United States wants to organise should be postponed,” Trade and Industry Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party told army radio.

“The Palestinians are not ready and this type of conference cannot but fail and result in a new intifada,” he said. “Any political process right now cannot but favour Hamas.”

US President George Bush called for the conference in the wake of the bloody Hamas takeover of Gaza, which split the Palestinians into two separate entities, with the Islamists ruling the coastal strip and Abbas having a power base in the occupied West Bank.

Abbas and Olmert have been holding regular meetings to try to hammer out some sort of an agreement on the most contentious issues of the decades-long Middle East conflict ahead of the conference. – AFP

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