Israel hits back against Gaza militants with airstrikes

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Militants in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip bombarded southern Israel with rockets and mortars yesterday, striking an empty school and sending thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters. Israel responded with airstrikes and diplomats scrambled to keep a new convulsion of Israeli-Palestinian violence from escalating.

The latest round of hostilities was triggered on Thursday by militants who launched an attack from Egyptian territory, ambushing Israeli cars and buses along the border and killing eight people. Israel says an armed Palestinian faction from Gaza was responsible.

In Israel, football matches, concerts and other public events in the towns and cities within rocket range were called off. Israel’s air force targeted sites in Gaza linked to Hamas and the territory’s other militant factions.

The deaths of three Egyptian security personnel in the gunbattles has precipitated a crisis in the already frayed relations between Israel and Egypt. Egypt, blaming Israel, initially threatened to withdraw its ambassador in Tel Aviv but relented after Israel apologised.

Diplomats in Cairo and Jerusalem said the United States, France and Germany were working with the Israelis and Egyptians to end the diplomatic spat.

In Cairo, protesters gathered outside the Israeli embassy for a third day yesterday and demanded the expulsion of the Israeli envoy. The ambassador is not currently in Egypt.

Military spokesman Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai said Israel’s current response to the surge in violence was not its final word. He told Israel Radio that the country “will not hesitate” to widen its military operation if necessary.

Israeli troops also rounded up 50 Hamas activists in the West Bank in an overnight raid, Palestinian security officials said.

Diplomats scrambled to try to prevent the violence – the deadliest since Israel went to war against Gaza militants two-and-a-half years ago – from spiralling out of control. Yaser Otham, the Egyptian representative to the Palestinian Authority, told Voice of Palestine radio that Cairo was “in contact with all parties to restore the truce in Gaza”.

Militant factions in Gaza confirmed the efforts. Talal Abu Tharefeh, spokesman for the small Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said: “All the Palestinian factions are interested in restoring the truce in order to protect our people.”

Large-scale Israeli military operations in Gaza would create new friction with the Muslim world at a time when Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is preparing to ask the United Nations to recognise an independent Palestinian state. Pictures of a major Israeli offensive in Gaza could hurt the Jewish state’s efforts to minimise world support for the Palestinian bid.

A spokesman said Mr Abbas’s Palestinian Authority planned to use the renewed violence to bolster its case for statehood at the United Nations next month.

“An independent Palestinian state is the remedy for violence,” Husam Zomlot said.

Hamas routed Mr Abbas’s loyalists from Gaza in a violent 2007 takeover, and a reconciliation pact signed in May has stalled.

Hamas, backed by Iran, opposes both peacemaking with Israel and Mr Abbas’s statehood bid.