By IBRAHIM BARZAK, AP, Jan. 18, 2008
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israel sought to put an end to a surge in rocket attacks from Gaza, sending its air force Friday against a symbol of Hamas power in the heart of Gaza City and simultaneously choking off shipments of fuel and food across its border with the strip.
An Israeli warplane attacked the downtown offices of the Palestinian Interior Ministry, flattening one wing of the empty building, killing a woman at a wedding party next door and wounding at least 46 other civilians, some of them children playing soccer in the street, hospital staff and witnesses said.
"It was more like an earthquake ... smoke covered the area for a few minutes, we didn't know what was hit at first," said resident Yehia Rabbah.
The attack was the first on a ministry building since Hamas seized control of Gaza last June. An Israeli military commentator said it was meant to send a message to the violent Islamic group that further rocket attacks could cause the conflict to spiral.
The building, in a residential neighborhood flanked by the apartments of well-to-do residents, had been empty since it was severely damaged in a July 2006 airstrike. But even though it was unoccupied, it was seen as a symbol of Hamas authority.
In a parallel move, Israel sealed all border crossings with the Gaza Strip on Friday, cutting the flow of vital supplies in an attempt to pressure Hamas to halt the rocket fire. But the attacks continued, with 16 rockets falling in southern Israel, including one that damaged a day care center in the town of Sderot. Children were inside the building at the time, but no one was hurt, the prime minister's office said.
Violence has grown since Tuesday, when an Israeli ground and air offensive against rocket squads claimed the lives of 19 Palestinians, including the militant son of a prominent Hamas leader. By Friday night, the Gaza death toll stood at 34, including at least 10 civilians.
In northern Gaza, an Israel airstrike on Friday killed one member of a rocket launch squad and a civilian bystander, Hamas said. The air force also attacked a base of Hamas security forces in central Gaza, but it was not in use and there were no casualties.
Since Tuesday, Hamas has joined other militant groups lobbing crude rockets and mortar shells across the border, and by nightfall Friday over 160 projectiles had fallen, according to the Israeli military. They caused no serious injuries.
Military analyst Yoav Limor, speaking on Israel's Channel One television, said the Israelis had expected a violent response to Tuesday's killing of the son of Hamas strongman, Mahmoud Zahar. But when rockets rained down on southern Israel for a fourth day Friday, the Israeli military sent the radical Islamic movement a message.
"It's to signal Hamas that this is what we can do and it will hurt you," Limor said, adding that Israel sought to avoid a large-scale ground offensive against the rocket launchers.
An escalation of the Gaza fighting could complicate President Bush's efforts to prod the sides toward a final peace deal by year's end and sour newly revived talks between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' West Bank government.
The International Committee of the Red Cross called on Israel and the Palestinians to respect international law and stop harming civilians.
Christoph Harnisch, head of the organization's delegation to Israel and the Palestinian territories, said in a statement he was "in daily contact with the Israeli army and Palestinian armed factions in an effort to persuade them to respect the civilian population."
Abbas denounced Israel's strikes in Gaza, but also accused Hamas of trying to destroy the Palestinian dream of statehood.
"We can only condemn gravely what happens in our cherished Gaza, this brutal attack on this cherished part of our land, every hour, which targets women, children and elderly," Abbas said.
Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror said crossings into Gaza were not opened Friday, preventing the scheduled passage of about 20 truckloads of food. The crossings, which normally work only a half-day on Fridays and are routinely closed Saturdays, may not open Sunday if rocket fire continues, he said.
He said Gazans had sufficient stocks of food so that no one would go hungry, adding that about 9,000 cows were allowed into the strip in the past two months.
"There is a government decision that there will not be a humanitarian crisis in Gaza," Dror said.
John Ging, the Gaza-based head of UNRWA, the U.N. agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, said the most immediate concern was the halt in delivery of fuel, of which there are no stockpiles.
"The supplies that are in most desperate need is the fuel," he said. "This is a very precarious situation." He said Israeli officials told him they would meet early next week to evaluate the situation and decide whether to reopen the passages.
Since Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Abbas loyalists, Israel has isolated the territory, although it generally allowed food, fuel and humanitarian shipments to pass.
In recent months, however, Israel has reduced fuel supplies in the hope that Gaza's population would pressure the militants to stop the rocket fire.
The Israeli human rights group Gisha wrote to Israel's attorney general this week, saying that due to fuel shortages the Gaza power plant had been forced to halve its output from 80 to 40 megawatts and asking him to order the immediate lifting of sanctions.
For weeks Gaza has been subjected to blackouts of up to 12 hours a day, and aid workers said the situation would turn critical if the closure lasted into next week.
Hamas warned of suicide attacks in Israel if it did not end the sanctions and military operations.
"If the bloodshed in Gaza and the West Bank does not stop, there will be similar bloodshed in ... Tel Aviv," Hamas spokesman Hamad al-Rukeb said in a statement.
The last suicide attack claimed by Hamas was in August 2005, when a suicide bomber severely wounded two security guards outside the bus station in the southern city of Beersheba. The last Hamas bombing to claim Israeli lives was in the same city a year earlier, when two bombers on separate city buses blew themselves up, killing 16 people and wounding 100.