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Israel hits Gaza tunnels as US envoy due

Israeli aircraft struck at tunnels used for smuggling goods and weapons on the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on Wednesday, hours before a United States peace envoy was due to arrive in the Jewish state.

Residents of the Gaza town of Rafah and Hamas security officials said some people began to flee their homes in panic as the aircraft struck three times before dawn. There was no initial word of casualties.

An Israeli army spokesperson confirmed that Israel had carried out air strikes on smuggling tunnels in the town of Rafah.

The strike came as a response to Tuesday’s attack by Gaza militants on an Israeli military vehicle that was hit by a roadside bomb while patrolling the Gaza border, killing one soldier and wounding three others, the army spokesperson said.

An air strike shortly afterwards killed one Palestinian on a motorcycle whom the spokesperson identified as the planner of the roadside bomb attack.

The exchanges were the first major military developments since Hamas and Israel declared separate ceasefires earlier this month after Israel’s offensive against the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said late on Tuesday that the killing of the man on the motorcycle was only an initial reaction and that Israel’s full response was still to come, Israeli media websites reported.

Israel and Hamas are negotiating through Egyptian mediators on a longer-term truce. Hamas wants Israel to lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel wants guarantees that Hamas will not again fire rockets at Israeli towns.

Later on Wednesday, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrives in Israel to take the first steps towards reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

A former US senator and experienced mediator who helped end the Northern Ireland conflict, Mitchell began his regional tour in Cairo on Tuesday bearing a message from US President Barack Obama that the ”moment is ripe” for peace talks.

He will meet Israeli leaders on Wednesday afternoon and visit the West Bank on Thursday to talk to Palestinian leaders, but Western diplomats said he would not meet Hamas officials.

High priority
Obama has made clear the Middle East conflict is a high priority he wants to tackle early in his presidency and, in an interview with Al Arabiya satellite channel, said he had told Mitchell to ”start by listening” and report back.

”The moment is ripe for both sides to realise that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table,” he said.

Obama assured Olmert he would maintain Washington’s commitment to Israel, but also praised King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for a Saudi-sponsored peace initiative offering Israel peace with the Arabs in exchange for withdrawal from Arab land occupied since 1967 and a just solution for Palestinian refugees.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders set out their positions on Tuesday before Mitchell’s arrival.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a candidate to succeed Olmert in a February 10 election, told Jewish leaders: ”We need … to achieve a peace treaty with the pragmatic Palestinians, with a legitimate Palestinian government which expresses the vision of two nation states …”

Tough stance after offensive
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said he would toughen his stance following Israel’s 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip.

He said he would tell Mitchell that Israel’s Gaza offensive proved it was not intent on peacemaking.

”Israel does not want peace, otherwise it would not have done this. We need to understand this and tell it to those coming from Europe and America. Israel wants to waste time to strengthen facts on the ground with settlements and the wall.”

Israel began its attack on Gaza, ruled by the Islamist group Hamas, on December 27, saying it wanted to stop militant rocket fire into nearby Israeli towns.

It said its aircraft hit a large number of tunnels during their campaign in the coastal enclave. About 1 300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed during the offensive. — Reuters

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