2 Gaza militants killed in Israeli airstrikes

By IBRAHIM BARZAK | March 12, 2012 | 3:27 AM EDT

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli airstrikes targeting rocket-launching operations killed two militants in the Gaza Strip on Monday as Palestinian rocket squads barraged southern Israel, in escalating fighting that has defied international truce efforts.

The cross-border violence, touched off by Israel's killing of a top militant leader on Friday, has been the worst exchange of fire between Israel and the Hamas-ruled territory in months. The fighting has killed 20 Gazans, including 18 militants, seriously wounded two Israelis, and disrupted the lives of 1 million Israelis living in Gaza rocket range.

The Israeli military said it carried out eight air attacks against rocket-launching sites and a weapons storage facility early Monday. Islamic Jihad said in a statement that one militant was killed while on a rocket-launching mission and that another was killed in a separate air attack while riding on a motorcycle. Three other militants were wounded in that raid, two of them critically, Gaza health official Adham Abu Salmia said.

Another strike in Gaza City wounded some two dozen people, including several children, health officials said.

The military said the air attacks came in response to continued rocket fire, and Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld reported that 11 rockets were fired into southern Israel early Monday. Schools in the area were closed for a second day to avoid casualties; a day earlier, a rocket struck the courtyard of one of the empty schools.

But although the violence shows no immediate signs of subsiding, both Hamas and Israel seem eager to avoid the kind of all-out war that erupted three years ago.

In keeping with its practice since that conflict, Hamas has stayed out of the current clashes, for fear of provoking a harsh Israeli retaliation. But it has not stopped other, smaller Gaza factions from attacking Israel, and Israel continues to hold it ultimately responsible for any violence emanating from Gaza.

In the past, similar flare-ups have died out by themselves or with informal cease-fires negotiated by third parties, often Egypt.

In this case, too, Egypt has been trying to mediate an end to the clashes, and Hamas has also appealed to other Mideast countries to join the truce attempts. But so far efforts have failed, with militants insisting that Israel first halt its airstrikes.

Israel's chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, told Israel Radio that Israel would halt its raids if the rocket fire would cease, but added that the Israeli military would continue to take pre-emptive action to foil militant attack plans.

Israel says it launched Friday's initial airstrike to stop a militant group's plan to infiltrate into Israel through Egypt's Sinai peninsula. Israel says the group, the Popular Resistance Committees, was behind a similar border raid in August that killed eight Israelis, but the PRC has never acknowledged involvement.

On a visit to southern Israel on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed the airstrikes would continue as long as necessary. "We have a clear policy: we will hit anyone who plans to harm us, who prepares to harm us and who harms us."

Mordechai, the military spokesman, said Monday that Israel was prepared for a ground offensive if necessary. He also said Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz has postponed a trip this week to the U.S. because of the fighting.