July 30, 2010 / 8:37 PM / 9 years ago

Israel launches air strikes in Gaza after rocket fire

GAZA (Reuters) - Israel carried out air strikes on targets in the Gaza Strip on Friday after a rocket fired from the Palestinian territory exploded in the city of Ashkelon, witnesses said.

A wounded Palestinian is carried into Al-Shifa hospital following Israeli air strikes in Gaza City July 30, 2010. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

The air strikes hit a training camp in Gaza City used by the Islamist group Hamas, which rules the enclave, and smuggling tunnels along Gaza’s southern border with Egypt. Another air strike struck an empty caravan in the central Gaza Strip.

Palestinian medical workers said four people were lightly wounded from debris in Gaza City. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

Earlier in the day, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired a rocket into Ashkelon on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, blowing out the windows of an apartment block and damaging parked cars in a residential area of the city.

No one was injured in the blast. But the attack ended over a year of calm for the Israeli city closest to Gaza.

A police spokesman said the rocket was a 122mm, Chinese-made Grad, with a heavier payload and greater range than the crude, homemade rockets Gaza militants were launching daily until Israel’s three-week military offensive into Gaza 18 months ago.

“As you see, hundreds of people live here. It’s just luck that no one was killed,” said Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin.

Ashkelon, with a population of 125,000, lies on the coast about 12 km (7 miles) north of the Gaza Strip. The mayor said it was the most serious attack on the city since Israel wound up its offensive in January 2009, largely ending Gaza rocket fire.

“Israel takes the firing on Ashkelon very seriously,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday.

Israeli media reported that the Jewish state had lodged a protest with the United Nations for an attack targeting civilians in violation of international law.

In a statement, U.N. Special Coordinator Robert Serry said “indiscriminate rocket fire against civilians is completely unacceptable and constitutes a terrorist attack.”

Hamas must not allow militant violence to undermine progress in talks between Israel and the Palestinians, he said.

PEACE TALKS

No group in Gaza claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack.

Hamas has said it is trying to stop militants from firing at Israel, but smaller groups have continued to launch rockets.

Friday’s violence coincided with diplomatic efforts to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he should advance from indirect negotiations to direct talks with Israel in pursuit of a Middle East peace pact — a course that Hamas and other militant and armed Islamist groups in Gaza oppose.

Abbas, branded by Hamas as a pawn of the West, has been negotiating with Netanyahu indirectly for two months via a U.S. mediator and is under U.S. pressure to upgrade to face-to-face talks before the end of September.

On Thursday, Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo gave Abbas the green light to engage in direct peace talks with Israel when he feels the time is right.

Hamas rejected the decision, calling it a “political sin.”

The attack on Ashkelon also coincided with a demand from the U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva that Israel lift its military blockade of Gaza and let an independent fact-finding mission investigate its raid on an aid flotilla on May 31 in which nine activists were killed by Israeli commandos.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Israel has since eased restrictions on imports of food and consumer goods to Gaza but insists that the naval blockade must stay in place to help prevent shipment of weapons, such as Grad missiles, to hostile groups in the enclave.

There has been sporadic, and erratic, rocket fire from Gaza since Israel’s Gaza offensive, mostly at smaller Israeli towns near the border, occasionally causing damage but no casualties.

Israeli forces usually respond by conducting air strikes on targets in Gaza, mainly smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt used to bring in everything from staples to weapons.

Additional reporting by Amir Cohen in Ashkelon; Writing by Douglas Hamilton and Joseph Nasr; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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