Israel: Gaza militants fire more rockets on Israel

IBRAHIM BARZAK Associated Press Published:

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Gaza militants resumed rocket fire toward Israel on Thursday, striking the outskirts of two major cities a day after launching the largest barrage since an eight-day Israeli offensive in late 2012. Israel has responded with a series of airstrikes on militant targets.

Despite the exchanges, there were signs the two days of fighting could subside. Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian group responsible for the rocket fire, said it had agreed through Egyptian mediation to halt its attacks if Israel agreed to a truce as well.

"After the Egyptian brothers initiated contacts with us in the past few hours, we agreed to restore the calm," said Khaled al-Batch, the group's leader in Gaza. "As long as the occupation (Israel) honors the calm, we will honor the calm and instructions are being given right now to al-Quds brigades, our military wing, about this understanding."

There was no immediate comment from Israel or Egypt, which has mediated similar truces in the past. And as he spoke, the Israeli military announced it had carried out more airstrikes on "seven terror sites" in southern Gaza in retaliation for the rocket fire earlier in the day. In all, it said some 65 rockets had been fired into Israel over the past two days.

"Since yesterday, there has seen a substantial deterioration in the safety of the residents in southern Israel. We have responded and will continue to do so in order to eliminate threats as they develop," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman.

The early morning rocket attacks from Gaza set off air-raid sirens in the southern cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon. The rockets landed in open areas, but flew deeper into Israel than Wednesday's attacks, which hit on southern Israeli border towns. There have been no casualties in the latest flare-up.

Gaza militant groups said they resumed their rocket fire in response to what they say are Israeli violations of a cease-fire, including an airstrike that killed three Islamic Jihad militants earlier this week.

Both sides have largely observed a cease-fire that ended the Israeli offensive against rocket launchers in November 2012, in which Israel and Gaza militants engaged in eight days of heavy fighting.

In Wednesday's attacks, Gaza militants fired more than 40 rockets at Israel in two hours Wednesday. Israel responded swiftly with dozens of airstrikes against militant targets in Gaza. The rocket attacks come during a visit to Israel by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who condemned the attacks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to convene his security Cabinet to discuss a further Israeli response, though the expectations were that tensions would calm down in a matter of days rather than spiral into a larger conflagration.

"Our policy in the south is clear. We harm those who try to harm us and respond fiercely to any attack," Netanyahu said on Thursday. "The terrorist groups in Gaza need to understand that they are dealing with a very determined government and a very strong army."

The Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad has taken responsibility for the rocket fire, saying it was meant to avenge the deaths of three of its members killed in Tuesday's airstrike while firing mortars toward Israel.

Gaza's ruling Hamas movement has not been involved in the latest fighting. But Israeli leaders say they hold the Islamic militant group responsible because it rules the coastal Palestinian territory.

Daoud Shihab, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, said implied that Hamas had given at least tacit approval for the group's activities, saying "the response of yesterday was blessed by all the factions."

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said Israel "bears full responsibility" for the escalation.

Hamas has controlled Gaza since overrunning the forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. Abbas now governs in the West Bank, located on the opposite side of Israel.

At a meeting with Cameron at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, Abbas condemned the latest violence. "Yesterday rockets were launched from Gaza and Israeli responded," he said. "We condemn the aggression and all forms of military escalation, including the rockets."

Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets and mortar rounds at Israel over the past decade. Attacks have significantly declined since the 2012 offensive, in which Israel carried out some 1,500 airstrikes on targets in Gaza while militants fired 1,500 rockets into Israel.

Israeli aircraft periodically strike militants who launch rockets.