GAZA (Reuters) - A rocket launched from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip killed a man in Israel on Wednesday, the first such death in nine months, and Israeli air strikes killed six Palestinian militants and five civilians in the territory.
The rocket, one of 40 Hamas said it fired in response to an air strike, seemed certain to increase public pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to order tougher Israeli military action in the Gaza Strip that might include a widescale ground operation.
As well as targeting armed men on the ground, Israel’s air force bombed the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, witnesses said. The blast damaged nearby buildings, killing a 6-month-old baby and wounding at least 14 other people, hospital officials said.
The mounting violence could complicate peace talks between Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority which Washington hopes can lead to a deal on statehood this year.
“The Hamas terror endangers not only the lives of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, but also the peace and stability of the entire region,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement which called rocket salvoes a “war crime”.
Earlier, five senior members of Hamas were killed when the van in which they were traveling was attacked from the air near the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, medical officials said.
Local residents who knew the men said some had undergone training in Syria or Iran and returned home after Hamas breached Gaza’s border with Egypt last month in defiance of an Israeli blockade of the territory. Hamas denied they had left Gaza.
Hamas, which seized Gaza in June after defeating Abbas’s forces, hit back. They were the first Hamas rockets fired in two weeks, although allied militants had maintained daily salvoes. Four Palestinian civilians — two men and two youths, medics said — died in air strikes near launch sites in northern Gaza.
The Israeli who died was identified as a 47-year-old man attending college in Sderot, a town near Gaza’s border.
No one had been killed in Israel by a Palestinian rocket strike since May. Such attacks are launched almost daily from Gaza, which Israeli soldiers and settlers quit in 2005.
“The (rocket) bombardment came in response to the Zionist massacre committed this morning in Khan Younis which led to the martyrdom of five of our best fighters,” a Hamas statement said.
A militant from the allied Islamic Jihad died in a separate Israeli attack east of Bureij in central Gaza, medics said.
Hamas, shunned by the West for refusing to recognize the Jewish state, says attacks from Gaza are a response to Israeli military raids in the territory and the occupied West Bank.
The salvoes would end if Israel stopped all such military activity and lifted its blockade, Hamas says.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli forces killed one militant from Abbas’s Fatah faction and wounded and detained four others, a Palestinian official said.
The spike in violence provided a troubling prelude to the latest visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose aides confirmed she will arrive on Monday for several days of talks on the U.S.-sponsored peace process with Abbas and Olmert.
Rice and U.S. President George W. Bush are racing against time to conclude a deal before Bush leaves office in January.
Rice’s spokesman Tom Casey played down the fighting. “There always are going to be things that will happen that will try and distract or sideline parts of these discussions but the important thing is that ... we have two leaders who are committed to moving forward,” he said.
He repeated that Israel had a right to defend itself but added: “We remain concerned about the civilian population in Gaza that continues to suffer as a result of Hamas’s misrule.”
Senior U.S. officials said Rice was expected to announce next week tens of millions of dollars in new U.S. funding to ease humanitarian hardship in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Gaza’s water authority warned people to boil water because it was running short of chlorine due to Israeli restrictions. The Israeli army said a request for chlorine had been made only belatedly and that it was working on supplying it.
Additional reporting by Atef Sa'ad and Labib Nasir in Nablus, Ari Rabinovitch, Alastair Macdonald and Avida Landau in Jerusalem and Sue Pleming in Washington, Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Richard Balmforth