GAZA (Reuters) - Israel launched more strikes against Gaza militants on Sunday, killing nine Palestinians in two aerial assaults, including one that struck the home of a prominent Hamas politician, security officials said.
It was the first time in many months Israel appeared to have targeted a figure regarded as a politician of the Islamist militant group that came to power a year ago but has been shunned by the West for refusing to recognize the Jewish state.
The attack punched a hole into the porch of the home of Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas lawmaker, in Gaza City’s Sejaiyeh quarter, as family members and relatives gathered. Hayya was not there at the time and was safe.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said Israel had killed five Hamas gunmen suspected of involvement in firing rockets, but denied aiming for Hayya’s home.
“These people were our target and they were hit,” Major Avital Leibovitch, the spokeswoman, said in an interview.
Hamas’s armed wing said six of those killed were civilians and two others were militants. A dozen or so other people were also wounded by the blast.
Hundreds of supporters surrounded Hayya later as he visited the morgue at Gaza’s Shifa Hospital. Many punched bloodied fists into the air and shouted for revenge. “It is a long march and I’m only a sacrifice for the people,” Hayya said.
Hamas’s armed wing vowed its “response will be like an earthquake” and its gunmen launched more rockets at Israel, hitting several places but causing no casualties.
Israel later launched a second air strike, killing one Palestinian and wounding three, Palestinian medics said, describing the victim as a civilian working at a stone mason’s workshop.
The Israeli spokeswoman said the planes had opened fire at militants loading ammunition onto a truck at a foundry used to manufacture rockets. In a third air strike, Israel bombed a rocket manufacturing plant of the Islamic Jihad group.
Medics said at least two people were wounded in the third strike.
Israeli tank gunners responded by firing several volleys at additional targets in Gaza, including the home of a Hamas militant in Beit Lahiya, wounding him and four of his children, Palestinian security sources and medics said.
An Israeli army spokeswoman said the troops had targeted “a place from where there had been two rocket firings at Sderot.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said earlier his security cabinet had decided to step up strikes against militant leaders involved in rocket attacks against southern Israel, stopping short of ordering a wider offensive in the coastal strip.
A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned both the decision and the ensuing Israeli attacks, including the air strike which was Israel’s deadliest in Gaza in about a year.
“This escalation will lead the Middle East to more violence and instability,” the aide, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said.
Ministers had resolved to “intensify operational steps ... by striking at terrorist infrastructure and those who operate the Qassam attacks,” Olmert told reporters, using Hamas’s name for the makeshift rockets.
Olmert said military operations would focus on the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants he accused of being responsible for an escalation in rocket firings in the past week.
“If these strong steps don’t bring about calm, the cabinet will meet to weigh additional, more drastic steps,” he added.
Sunday’s air strike raised to 27 the number of Palestinians Israel has killed in Gaza since it stepped up air raids in response to heightened rocket attacks that have wounded a dozen Israelis in the past week.
Israel killed three suspected Hamas militants in a Gaza air strike earlier on Sunday.
Hayya, the apparent target of Israel’s strike, had earlier played a role in announcing a deal calling a formal end to the deadliest fighting between Hamas and rival Fatah gunmen since a unity government deal in March, battles in which 49 were killed.
Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah