GAZA (Reuters) - Israel launched air strikes in Gaza on Thursday against a Hamas security force, killing at least four people and plunging Palestinians deeper into turmoil after six days of fierce internal fighting verging on civil war.
Israeli troops with tanks also entered the Gaza Strip, the coastal enclave from which Israel withdrew in 2005. A spokesman called it a “small force” on a “defensive operation”, leaving it unclear whether Israel was shifting its policy of leaving all but the areas closest to the border to Palestinian forces.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed to stand firm on a visit to a border town hit by dozens of rockets in recent days and U.S. President George W. Bush, calling for both sides to seek peace, said he understood Israeli fears of rocket strikes.
Rubble was all that remained of a Gaza City building that housed the Islamist Hamas’s Executive Force, which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Fatah faction wants disbanded. At least 40 people were wounded in that attack alone, hospital officials said.
Israeli artillery was deployed along the Gaza border and residents said tanks were moving towards northern Gaza towns. Israeli forces recently completed training for a possible ground invasion of Gaza. The Israeli army broke into local radio broadcasts to warn northern Gaza residents not to approach Israeli forces operating in the area.
Despite a ceasefire deal brokered by Abbas and Hamas leader in exile Khaled Meshaal, four Palestinians -- including a woman and a young boy -- were killed in fighting between Hamas and Fatah on Thursday, raising the death toll in such internal conflict to at least 44 since Friday.
Israel said it launched the air strikes in response to cross-border rocket attacks. Hamas accused Israel of colluding with its rival Fatah in a battle for dominance in the territory, which Israeli soldiers and settlers quit two years ago.
Fatah brushed aside Hamas’s charges, saying Palestinians must unite in the face of the Israeli onslaught.
“We have had enough. Israel will take all defensive measures to protect our citizens from these Hamas rockets,” Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Olmert, said before the air strikes.
In response to the intense air assault, Hamas’s armed wing threatened to resume suicide bombings in Israel. A Hamas bomber last struck in Israel in 2004.
After the Executive Force building was hit, an Israeli aircraft destroyed a car carrying a senior commander in Hamas’s armed wing, seriously wounding him and killing another militant.
Another Hamas fighter was killed in an air strike at an Executive Force position outside the home of the Interior Ministry’s spokesman.
In southern Gaza, an Israeli air strike targeting a rocket launching crew killed two teenage brothers whom hospital officials said were civilians. Three Hamas fighters were killed and seven wounded in an overnight strike on a training base.
The Israeli army denied its attacks were connected to the factional violence. The air strikes came after militants in Gaza fired rockets at the southern Israeli town of Sderot and injured two people. Rockets have continued to fall throughout the day on southern Israel despite the air strikes.
The Gaza violence has worsened conditions for Palestinians hard-hit by Western sanctions against the Hamas-led government. Olmert has ruled out serious peace talks so long as the government refuses to recognize Israel and renounce violence.
Abbas called off plans to travel to Gaza on Thursday for crisis talks with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. It was unclear how the Hamas-Fatah unity government would survive and function given the mounting violence and resentment.
Israel’s air strikes came a day after it hit an Executive Force building in southern Gaza and a rocket launching crew, killing five people. The Israeli government has threatened a “severe” response to rocket attacks on Israel.
Olmert, struggling to stay in office after an official report sharply criticized his handling of last year’s war in Lebanon, is under heavy domestic pressure to stop the rockets without getting bogged down in another inconclusive conflict.
At the same time, he knows a wide-ranging Israeli military response in Gaza could have a major influence on the course of Fatah’s power struggle with Hamas.
The United States said Israel had the right to defend itself and praised the Jewish state for “great restraint” this week.
Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Ori Lewis and Adam Entous in Jerusalem; Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah
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