14 hurt as Gaza rocket hits Israeli city

May 14, 2008 9:57:00 AM PDT
A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip exploded in a shopping center in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on Wednesday, wounding at least 14 people, rescue officials said. The attack came as President Bush wrapped up talks in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The Israeli leader said Israel would not tolerate attacks by extremists in Gaza, which has been controlled by the Islamic militants of the Hamas movement since last June.

Two militant groups, the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad and the Hamas-linked Popular Resistance Committees, claimed responsibility for the rocket strike.

Army Radio said the rocket hit the third floor of the Hutzot mall. The report said a clinic takes up part of the floor.

Witnesses said an early warning system meant to give a few seconds for people to take cover did not sound an alarm before the rocket slammed into the mall.

The Magen David Adom rescue service said three people were wounded seriously and 11 others had lesser injuries. But Leah Malul, an official at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, said two women and two girls suffered serious injuries.

A witness identified only as Yuri told Israel Radio he was on the first floor when the rocket hit two floors above.

"There was the sound of a really loud explosion. Everybody started running, it was a really big mess. I went outside and saw smoke in the air. All the windows were blown out," he said. Two Israelis have been killed in recent days in attacks by Palestinian militants on Israeli communities near the border with Gaza.

Such attacks often draw a military response from Israel, and five Palestinians were killed earlier Wednesday during Israeli military operations in Gaza.

While militants have fired homemade rockets into rural southern Israeli border towns for several years, only recently have they gained the capability to target Ashkelon, a city of 110,000 people about nine miles from the border. The longer-range attacks involve foreign-made Grad-type rockets.

Israel believes Islamic Jihad gets the Grads from Iran. "It's part of the Iranian war against Israel," former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told Israel Radio.

After meeting with Bush, the prime minister blamed Hamas. "We will not be able to tolerate continuous attacks on innocent civilians," Olmert said. "We hope we will not have to act against Hamas in other ways with the military power that Israel hasn't yet started to use in a serious manner in order to stop it."

Israel has been reluctant to launch a major ground offensive in Gaza, worrying about casualties to its soldiers.

Israel's high-tech military has been unable to find a way to stop the crude rockets. Past invasions have halted daily rocket fire only briefly, and the barrages resumed as soon as Israeli troops pulled out.

Before he leaves office in January, Bush hopes to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the moderate Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. Israel has warned it will not sign any accord until Abbas regains control of Gaza from Hamas.

Abbas claims the West Bank and Gaza - areas on opposite sides of Israel - for a future independent state. Hamas, which is to Israel's destruction, opposes the peace talks.


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