May 31, 2007 / 5:33 AM / 11 years ago

Israel, militants exchange limited fire in Gaza

GAZA (Reuters) - Israel launched air strikes against militants and a rocket launching site in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, injuring two Palestinians, but the number of attacks from both sides appeared to be dropping off.

An Israeli armoured personnel carrier (APC) enters Israel after an operation in Gaza near Kibbutz Zikim, just outside the northern Gaza Strip May 30, 2007. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

The relative lull prompted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s adviser, Nabil Abu Rdainah, to suggest an “undeclared truce” was taking hold after two weeks of escalating violence.

Gaza militants fired at least three makeshift rockets into southern Israel on Thursday, causing no injuries. Israel launched two air strikes in Gaza.

Militants fired five rockets on Wednesday and three on Tuesday, down from 14 rockets on Monday.

It is unclear how long the lull will last. Both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Hamas’s armed wing have publicly rebuffed Abbas’s repeated calls for a ceasefire.

Abbas said he would meet with Olmert on June 7 and Olmert’s office said the meeting was likely to take place in the West Bank city of Jericho.

Abbas hoped to convince Olmert to back a new truce under which Israel and Palestinian militants would commit to stopping attacks, first in Gaza and eventually the occupied West Bank.

Olmert will meet U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington on June 19 to discuss on how to revive peacemaking clouded by the current surge of violence.

The Quartet of Middle East mediators on Wednesday condemned the rocket attacks, urged Israel to exercise restraint and called on Abbas to restore law and order in Gaza.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, appointed a commander for a joint Hamas-Fatah force to try to restore order in Gaza. The security plan was delayed by fierce factional fighting earlier this month and many Palestinians doubted the plan would succeed.

LULL

Palestinian militants have fired more than 270 rockets from Gaza, killing two Israelis, over the past two weeks.

Hamas’s armed wing took responsibility for the bulk of the rocket attacks, but it now appeared to be holding its launchers back. The Islamist group has not fired a rocket since Tuesday.

Israel has responded to the rocket fire by launching air strikes targeting Hamas facilities, commanders and rocket crews. Nearly 50 Palestinians have been killed so far, most of them fighters. Israel has also carried out limited ground operations.

Local residents said on Thursday they saw two small ground forces entering Gaza and taking up positions near towns in the north and the south of the coastal strip. Israeli forces later pulled back and the army described the movements as routine.

One of the early morning air strikes hit a rocket launching position shortly after it fired into Israel.

“There were several rocket launchers. One launched and at least one other rocket launcher was ready to launch,” said an Israeli army spokesman.

A second Israeli air strike targeted a rocket launching crew, the army said.

The Popular Resistance Committees militant group said two of its militants were lightly wounded after they fired rockets towards the nearby Israeli town of Sderot.

“We will continue to bombard Zionist settlements until the occupier is dismissed from our land,” the group said, defying Abbas’s call for a ceasefire.

Hamas says any ceasefire must include an immediate end to all Israeli attacks in both Gaza and West Bank.

Israel has rejected the idea, saying its operations in the West Bank were necessary to stop militant attacks. Israel has also rebuffed calls for a more limited Gaza truce, saying Hamas would use the lull to rearm.

Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Adam Entous

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