Isabel Kershner, International Herald Tribune, March 2, 2008
ASHKELON- Israeli-Palestinian violence spilled over from Gaza to the West Bank on Sunday, and a spokesman for the Western-backed Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, said contacts with Israel had been temporarily suspended "in the light of the Israeli aggression."
The move was likely to mar further a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region that is set to start Monday.
Also Sunday, militants from Gaza fired more rockets into Israel, including some longer-range ones that hit the large Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon and the desert town of Netivot, despite days of harsh Israeli military action against the rocket launchers and the continued presence of a large Israeli ground force in northern Gaza.
At least 10 Palestinians were killed in Gaza by Israeli fire Sunday, according to local hospital officials, bringing the total of Palestinians killed since Wednesday, when the latest surge in hostilities began, to more than 100. Israel says that most of those killed were armed militants, but Palestinian officials say that more than half were civilians, including several children.
A spokesman for the military wing of Hamas, the Qassam Brigades, said Sunday that 35 members of his group had been killed. About nine militants from smaller militant groups like Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees were also reported among the dead.
In the West Bank, Israeli forces shot and killed a Palestinian boy, Mahmoud al- Masalmeh, 14, near Hebron and dispersed stone-throwing demonstrators in several other cities and areas bordering on Jerusalem as protests broke out against the spiraling death toll in Gaza.
Regarding the death of the youth near Hebron, an Israeli Army spokeswoman said that there had been "very violent disturbances" in the area and that soldiers had opened fire at two Palestinians who were acting suspiciously near the West Bank barrier in the course of the riot, hitting at least one of them.
Two Israeli soldiers who were killed in the fighting in Gaza on Saturday were buried in Israel on Sunday. One Israeli civilian was killed by short-range rocket fire on Wednesday in the Israeli border town of Sderot.
The surge started on Wednesday when five Hamas Qassam Brigades members were killed in an Israeli airstrike in southern Gaza. Israeli military officials said that the five were on their way to carrying out a special operation against Israel, possibly involving infiltrating the border and capturing a soldier. Some of the five had just come back from Iran and Syria, which the military officials said may explain the strength of the Hamas retaliation.
In response, militants in Gaza fired huge barrages of rockets at Sderot, killing the civilian, and since Thursday, have launched an unprecedented number of longer-range, manufactured Katyusha-style rockets at Ashkelon, a major Israeli city of about 120,000 people about 10 miles north of the Gaza Strip.
Hamas, the militant Islamic group, took control of the Gaza Strip last June after routing the pro-Abbas forces there. Its military wing has claimed responsibility for most of the recent rocket fire.
Israeli officials describe the firing of the longer-range rockets, which they refer to as Grads, as a serious escalation of the conflict, and have mounted a ground and air campaign in northern Gaza that left more than 60 Palestinians dead on Saturday.
Before dawn on Sunday, the air force struck three targets in Gaza that the army spokeswoman described as Hamas headquarters and weapons storage facilities. Among the targets was a headquarters of Ismail Haniya, the Hamas leader in Gaza, according to Palestinian and Israeli officials. It was empty at the time.
The air force also struck against armed militants in northern Gaza on Sunday afternoon, the army spokeswoman said.
Abu Obeida, the Qassam Brigades spokesman, said in Gaza that his group would continue firing rockets.
A senior Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity under army rules, said the army was trying to hit the sites where rockets are stored, many of which are located in civilian homes. He said there were enough rockets in Gaza for the firing to continue for now at a rate of a few dozen a day.
Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Jerusalem and Taghreed El-Khodary from Gaza City.