Israeli Drone Strike Islamic Jihad Training Site


palestiniansIsraeli airstrikes killed seven Palestinian members of Islamic Jihad’s armed wing in southern Gaza today, according to the militant group, and Gaza militants fired salvos of rockets at cities in southern Israel, killing one Israeli man and wounding at least two others in a sudden escalation of cross-border violence.

The Israeli military said that it had first hit a terrorist squad that was preparing to fire long-range rockets into Israel early Saturday, and that the same squad had been responsible for firing a rocket that struck late Wednesday near the Israeli port city of Ashdod.

Witnesses to the first raid said that an Israeli drone fired two missiles at a training site situated on sandy dunes in a former Jewish settlement near the city of Rafah, killing five. Islamic Jihad pledged that it would respond forcefully to the Israeli drone strike. Hours later, several rockets fired from Gaza slammed into the southern Israeli cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon, damaging buildings and setting fire to parked cars.

The Israeli death was in Ashkelon, about 10 miles north of Gaza on the coast, according to the Israeli police and hospital officials.

Israel’s military said it subsequently hit another squad preparing to fire rockets from Gaza and other sites. Two more Islamic Jihad militants were killed in those strikes, according to the group and Gaza medical officials.

Wednesday’s rocket fire interrupted weeks of relative quiet along the Israel-Gaza border and set off sirens as far north as Rishon LeZion, a Tel Aviv suburb. That rocket fell in an open area and caused no casualties or damage.

Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, has made efforts to enforce a cease-fire since the last round of cross-border airstrikes and rocket attacks in August, which claimed casualties on both sides. The August confrontation was precipitated by a deadly attack north of Eilat that killed eight Israelis. The attackers in that episode crossed the border into Israel from Egypt, but Israel said the attack was orchestrated by another militant group in Gaza, the Popular Resistance Committees, and immediately killed its senior commanders in an airstrike.

The latest flare-up came less than two weeks after the return of a captured Israeli soldier, Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit, who had been held incommunicado in Gaza for more than five years by Hamas. Israel freed 477 Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for the soldier and is set to release 550 more prisoners in a deal that bolstered Hamas’s standing.

A spokesman for the armed wing of Islamic Jihad said Saturday that several of the dead were senior commanders of the organization. They included Ahmed al-Sheikh Khalil, a leader of one of the Islamic Jihad brigades. Mr. Khalil had four brothers who were activists in the movement; they were all killed in Israeli Army operations.

No Palestinian group claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s rocket attack on Israel, but there was speculation that Islamic Jihad carried it out to mark the 16th anniversary of the assassination in Malta of the group’s leader, Fathi Shikaki. The group may have also wanted to assert itself after the Shalit deal.

Hamas is largely committed to the fragile cease-fire that first came into effect after Israel’s three-week military offensive in Gaza that ended in January 2009. Smaller groups like Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees are not.

{NY Times/ Newscenter}