Toll from Israel Gaza strikes now 14 militants

IBRAHIM BARZAK Associated Press Published:

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- The worst exchange of strikes between Israel and the Gaza Strip so far this year entered its second day on Saturday, as Israeli aircraft carried out raids that have so far killed 14 militants according to a Palestinian count, and militants responded with nearly 100 rockets.

The flare-up began Friday with a strike on a commander who the Israelis say was planning an attack. This unleashed a fierce rocket barrage by Palestinian militants from the coastal territory toward Israel's southern border communities. One of those rockets seriously wounded an Israeli civilian and sent families scattering into bomb shelters.

By midday Saturday, militants fired 92 rockets at Israel -- far more than the total number fired from the beginning of this year until this exchange of strikes began, a military spokesman said. He spoke anonymously in line with military regulations.

Egypt said it was trying to shackle together a cease-fire to halt the violence, but truce hopes seemed distant on Saturday.

Gaza residents said they could hear the low whooshing noise of militants firing rockets from border areas toward Israel.

In the skies above them Israeli drones hovered, making tinny noises. Hundreds of Palestinian mourners gathered on the streets to bury their dead. They were carried in coffins, their bodies too torn up to be wrapped up in cloth, as Muslim tradition dictates. Masked militants among them sprayed machine gun fire above their heads in angry grief.

On Israel's southern border areas, residents were told to stay home and to refrain from holding large outdoor events on Saturday.

Palestinian militants said they would press on.

Gaza's Hamas rulers condemned the Israeli strike but, pointedly, their militants did not fire rockets at Israel. Still, Israel's military said it would hold the militant group responsible for any attacks that initiated from Gaza.

The Palestinian militants were killed in eight airstrikes overnight and on Saturday morning, said Gaza health spokesman Adham Abu Salmiya. He said some 20 more civilians were wounded by flying shrapnel from the exploding missiles, some of which targeted militants deep in civilian areas of the crowded territory.

The most recent airstrike targeted two Palestinian militants on a motorbike in the border town of Bani Suheila in the south-east of Gaza, Abu Salmiya said.

The flare-up began midmorning Friday, when an Israeli airstrike targeted the commander of one of the militant groups behind the abduction of an Israeli soldier five years ago.

Zuhair Al-Qaissi's killing prompted Palestinian militants in Gaza to fire over 92 rockets at Israel so far, according to the latest count by Israel's military.

The military said its air defense systems intercepted some 25 rockets before they landed.

Some of the militants killed were planning to fire rockets, said Palestinian militant spokespeople. Other militants were targeted, but it wasn't immediately clear why.

Three militants walking on Gaza City's main upscale boulevard were hit by an airstrike last night, leaving a shallow gash in the road. Another was hit while driving a car in the central Gaza City town of Deir al-Balah.

The Israeli military said it targeted Zuhair al-Qaissi, the commander of the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committees, a militant group closely aligned with Gaza's Hamas rulers.

It was the highest profile killing Israel has undertaken against militants in the coastal strip in several months.

The military said al-Qaissi was plotting an infiltration attack into Israel similar to the raid from Egypt's Sinai peninsula that they claim he orchestrated in August, which killed eight Israelis and injured 40 more.

The militant group has never taken responsibility for the attack.

The explosion tore apart al-Qaissi's blue sedan and killed his son-in-law, Mahmoud Hanini -- himself a top PRC field commander. Another low-ranking Gaza militant also died.

That strike unleashed the furious Palestinian response.

"(We) won't give this occupation a free truce while our leaders and heroes are being killed," said Abu Mujahid, spokesman for al-Qaissi's group.

"Although the price will be difficult, there is no choice," he said.

Israel said it would continue to defend its civilians.

"The (army) is prepared to defend the residents of Israel and will respond with strength and determination against any attempt to execute terrorist attacks," the military said in a statement. The military warned Hamas would "bear the consequences" of any attacks launched from Gaza.

Egypt's envoy to the Palestinians said Israel had violated a long-unspoken truce on the Gaza border and called for calm.

"We are calling on all sides to return to a cease-fire," said Egyptian consul Yasser Usman from the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Gaza's Hamas rulers condemned the Israeli strike. But in a pointed message, they did not let their militants fire rockets at Israel. Instead, they quietly allowed other Palestinian militants to unleash salvos.

In previous flare-ups, Hamas has used such a strategy to allow Palestinian militants to burn off their anger, with an eye towards the exchange of strikes eventually quieting down.

The Popular Resistance Committees are responsible for dozens of deadly attacks against Israelis and its members are among the most active rocket launchers from Gaza into Israel.

But the group is mostly known for carrying out the 2006 abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit and holding on to him for more than five years until he was freed for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners last year.

Israel often targets Gaza militants it says are preparing attacks, but tensions have been relatively calm in recent months with Israel mostly targeting smuggling tunnels from Egypt and refraining from attacking individuals. Al-Qaissi, who is also known as Abu Ibrahim, is the highest profile casualty in Gaza since his predecessor, Kamal Nairab, was killed seven months ago in a similar fashion.

The Israeli military insisted it did not want an escalation but said it was "prepared to defend the residents of Israel."

But it appeared to be getting ready for the worst, issuing a warning to Israeli residents living within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of Gaza to stay close to home Friday night and refrain from holding major outdoor events Saturday.

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With additional reporting by Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem. Follow Hadid on twitter.com/diaahadid