Palestinian rocket kills 1

February 27, 2008 7:46:53 AM PST
A Palestinian rocket struck a college campus in southern Israel on Wednesday, killing a man and lightly injuring another person, Israeli medical officials said. The rocket barrage occurred hours after an Israeli airstrike killed five Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, and raised the likelihood of even more intense Israeli attacks. Palestinian officials said two people, including a civilian, were killed in a second Israeli airstrike carried out at the time of the rocket attack.

The Hamas militant group, which controls Gaza, claimed responsibility for the rocket fire. It said it had launched more than 20 rockets at Israel, including eight at Sderot, the town where the deadly strike took place.

Israeli media said the rocket exploded in a parking lot at Sapir College. Israeli officials said a student, about 30 years old, was struck in the heart by shrapnel and died. Israeli TV stations showed a second man being carried on a stretcher with wounds to his legs.

Palestinian militants have fired thousands of crude rockets at southern Israel over the past seven years, with Sderot the most frequent target. The attacks have killed a total of 13 people and caused widespread panic throughout the area.

"We knew this was coming. It's a shame that it happened. This is a difficult day," Sderot's mayor, Eli Moyal, told Army Radio.

Israel frequently carries out airstrikes and brief ground incursions in Gaza to halt the rocket attacks, and it appeared likely that the deadly rocket barrage would draw a new Israeli reprisal.

"Israel will be diligent in our efforts to put an end to these lethal rocket attacks. Those firing rockets at our civilians will know neither rest nor have any respite from the measures we will take to stop these attacks," said David Baker, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The latest violence was likely to fuel calls for a large-scale ground offensive in Gaza. Olmert has so far resisted such action, saying it would cause heavy casualties on both sides.

Early Wednesday, an Israeli aircraft blew up a minivan carrying Hamas gunmen, killing five militants, including two key masterminds of rocket attacks on Israel, the militant group said.

Burned bodies in camouflage uniforms were visible in the white minivan. Hamas officials said the dead included a senior engineer who built rockets and commander who led a rocket squad. Two other Hamas members were wounded in the airstrike, according to Hamas and health officials.

"This is a new Israeli crime. It shows the bloody-mindedness of the occupation," said Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu.

Later Wednesday, an Israeli airstrike killed two people in northern Gaza, a frequent launching ground of the rocket squads. Palestinian officials said one of the dead was a civilian farm worker. Israel confirmed the airstrike.

The body of another Palestinian militant killed in central Gaza overnight was brought to the hospital in Gaza on Wednesday morning. The Islamic Jihad group said the man was one of its gunmen who had been killed in a clash with the Israeli military. The army said a militant approached the Gaza-Israel border fence late Wednesday and that soldiers had seen an explosion, likely caused by explosives the militant was carrying.

In the West Bank, undercover Israeli troops killed a militant and wounded a bystander in a raid in the city of Nablus, Palestinians said. The dead man belonged to a militant offshoot of the Fatah movement led by President Mahmoud Abbas. The Israeli military confirmed it had carried out an operation, but gave no details.

In addition to its military strikes, Israel has imposed tough economic sanctions on Hamas-ruled Gaza, allowing little more than basic humanitarian goods into the area.

The sanctions have caused widespread shortages of basic goods. On Wednesday, the area's main water provider urged residents to boil all drinking water, citing a dire shortage of chlorine as a result of the blockade.

The Coastal Municipality Water Utility made the announcement in radio and newspaper advertisements. It said there was a "major concern over a health disaster due to possible contamination of the drinking water" and appealed to the international community for help.

Israeli officials had no immediate comment.

Israel's sanctions and military operations have failed to stop the rocket fire, and a poll published in an Israeli paper Wednesday indicated that a majority of Israelis believe the government should hold talks with Hamas - a proposal once unthinkable given Hamas' history of suicide bombings in Israel.

Israel says talks with the group won't be possible until it renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist. Hamas has been labeled a terror organization by Israel, the U.S. and EU.

The poll, carried out by the Dialog company and published Wednesday in the Haaretz daily, showed that 64 percent of Israelis believe Israel should talk to Hamas now to bring a halt to the rocket fire and to win the release of a captured soldier, Cpl. Gilad Schalit.

Schalit was seized in June 2006 by Hamas militants and has been held in Gaza since then as talks on a prisoner swap have stalled. Only 28 percent of Israelis reject talks with Hamas, according to the poll. The poll included 500 respondents and had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Though the Israeli government has consistently rejected talking to the Islamic group, some Israeli officials, including Sderot's mayors and prominent retired security officials, have recently expressed support for such talks. Several Hamas officials have proposed a truce with Israel. But at least in the short term, that possibility seemed unlikely.