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Rocket hits Israeli mall near Gaza

ASHKELON, Israel (Reuters) - A rocket fired by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip injured over 30 people at a shopping mall in the Israeli city of Ashkelon on Wednesday, Israeli emergency service officials and the army said.

An Israeli police officer gestures at the scene of a rocket attack in the southern city of Ashkelon May 14, 2008. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen

The attack came as U.S. President George W. Bush met Israeli leaders in Jerusalem to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state -- an event Palestinians commemorate as the “Nakba”, or catastrophe, for their people.

Later on Wednesday an Israeli air strike killed at least two Hamas gunmen and wounded four others east of Gaza City, Hamas officials said. An Israeli army spokesman confirmed that an aircraft had fired a missile at gunmen in the area.

The Israeli army regularly attacks Gaza, from which it withdrew occupying troops and settlers in 2005. Such raids have killed some 300 people in Gaza this year, more than 100 of them civilians.

A top floor clinic at the Hutzot mall, close to Israel’s main coastal highway, took the brunt of the rocket blast.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and the Salahudeen Brigades, a group allied with Hamas, claimed responsibility for the attack, one of an almost daily pattern of strikes from the Palestinian enclave.

Ashkelon, which is more than 10 km (six miles) north of the coastal strip, has generally been out of range but some more powerful rockets, notably Soviet-designed Katyushas or Grads, have struck the city of some 120,000 this year.

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Rockets fired from Gaza have killed two Israeli civilians in the past week in agricultural communities closer to the border -- the first such deaths in over two months. In all, such rocket attacks have killed five Israelis in the past year.

After the attack on the mall, medics said 31 people were treated in hospital. Three of them, including a 6-year-old girl, were seriously hurt and two were flown to another hospital near Tel Aviv for further treatment.

POLITICAL GOALS

The White House condemned the attack and said political goals would “never be achieved by launching rockets from Gaza at innocent women and children.”

A United Nations spokesman said the attack was “totally unacceptable” and that it highlighted “the unsustainability of the current situation for the people of southern Israel, as well as the people of Gaza.”

After meeting Bush and before word of the latest attack came in, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he was working for peace, including for a truce with Hamas, but warned Gaza militants that Israel could hit hard if rocket fire continued.

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“We hope that we will not have to act against Hamas in other ways with the military power that Israel hasn’t yet started to use in a serious manner in order to stop it,” Olmert said.

A senior Israeli official said Iran was helping militants improve the range of their rockets and that it was “only a matter of months” before rockets could hit far deeper.

“They will fire them from inside Gaza where it will be almost impossible to find them,” he said.

Hamas praised the attack and said that the longer range of the strike “proved that Israel’s defense doctrine had failed.” The group’s armed wing warned Israel against “committing any foolish acts in response.”

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

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