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Israel threatens more Gaza strikes

GAZA CITY, Feb 2 – Israel threatened more strikes against Hamas on Monday hours after aircraft bombed Gaza in response to new rocket fire from the Islamist-ruled enclave.

Israeli aircraft late on Sunday targeted an empty police station in central Gaza and some seven tunnels along the Gaza Strip’s southern border with Egypt, witnesses said.

The action came two weeks after the end of an Israeli offensive that devastated the impoverished territory and left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead.

There were no reports of casualties in the latest strikes on the Hamas outpost and the tunnels, used for importing weapons and goods from Egypt into the Gaza Strip, where Israel enforces a punishing blockade.

The army confirmed carrying out strikes "in response to barrages of Qassam rockets and mortar shells fired at Israel."

According to witnesses, hundreds of Palestinian workers involved in tunnel construction in southern Gaza fled to the Egyptian side of the border shortly after the bombing began.

Palestinian militants in Gaza fired more than 10 rockets and mortar rounds onto southern Israel on Sunday, wounding one civilian and two soldiers.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said although most of the rockets were not fired by Hamas, the Islamist movement — which has controlled Gaza since June 2007 — bore the responsibility for the attacks.

"We are responding and we will continue to retaliate. We know that most of the fire was not carried out by Hamas but by other small organisations, but Hamas is responsible. Hamas must act to stop this.

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"We need calm in the south, and that is the test…. If there is no calm we will have to act again," Barak, who heads the centre-left Labour party in the upcoming February 10 elections, warned on public radio.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday vowed to deal "a severe and disproportionate Israeli response" to the new rocket fire.

The renewed air strikes come nine days before Israelis go to the polls.

Hamas slammed the Israeli threats as a "campaign stunt" before the election.

"This is an attempt… to destroy the Egyptian efforts to improve the calm," spokesman Taher al-Nunu said in Gaza.

The Hamas spokesman did not say whether the Islamist group was behind the latest rocket fire, but called on "all groups to respect the national decision concerning the ground situation in Gaza."

At least 15 rockets have been fired since mutual ceasefires by Israel and Hamas on January 18 brought an end to the 22-day war in which 13 Israelis also died.

Egypt has been leading international efforts to consolidate the ceasefires into a lasting truce.

To that end Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, whose rule is confined to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is due to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday in Cairo.

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Abbas on Sunday accused Hamas, which routed forces loyal to him when it seized power in 2007, of putting Palestinian lives and their hopes for statehood in peril.

He also accused the Islamists of trying to smash the Palestine Liberation Organisation and said he rejected talks with any group which did not recognise the PLO.

Khaled Meshaal, who heads Hamas’s politburo from exile in Damascus, said earlier in the week that the PLO had become obsolete and called for "a new, national authority."

His comments were not supported by Hamas-allied militants, who said the PLO should be reformed rather than replaced.

Meshaal on Sunday ruled out any permanent ceasefire until Israel ends a crippling blockade it imposed on Gaza after the Islamists seized power.

But an Israeli official said the Jewish state "is not ready to adhere to any agreement that has a time-limit. We want a deal that will be valid for as long as the sides respect it."


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