Israeli airstrike kills Gaza militant

February 2, 2009 6:14:35 AM PST
A missile from an Israeli aircraft struck a car traveling in the southern Gaza Strip on Monday, killing a Palestinian militant and further straining a truce with the territory's Hamas rulers. The strike came as the Islamic militant group sent a delegation to Egypt in hopes of wrapping up a long-term cease-fire to Israel's three-week military offensive that killed nearly 1,300 Palestinians in Gaza.

A day earlier, Israel's prime minister threatened "harsh and disproportionate" retaliation for continued violations of the informal Jan. 18 cease-fire, which has been tested by sporadic Palestinian shelling attacks and Israeli airstrikes.

In Monday's airstrike, the military said it targeted a group of militants who had fired mortar shells at Israel. Palestinian medical officials said a militant in the vehicle was killed, while a second occupant and two bystanders were wounded. The identities of the wounded were not immediately known.

The airstrike took place in Rafah, a town located along Gaza's southern border with Egypt. With Gaza's borders sealed by Israel and Egypt, Rafah has a bustling smuggling trade and Israel frequently targets the area to prevent the flow of weapons into Gaza.

The fate of the border is a key sticking point in the Egyptian-mediated cease-fire talks. Israel wants an end to rocket attacks and arms smuggling. Hamas wants Gaza's border crossings to reopen. The crossings, Gaza's main economic lifeline, have largely been closed since Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

In Syria, a member of Hamas' exiled leadership said the group is ready for a one-year truce with Israel in exchange for reopening the borders and lifting the economic blockade.

The official, Mohammed Nasr, said he would travel to Cairo later Monday for the truce talks. A senior Hamas delegation from Gaza was also expected to join the talks.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman from Gaza, said the delegation would listen to "the summary of the Egyptian contacts and talks that have been conducted with the Israelis or other concerned parties."

Hamas' "final stance or decision will shape up according to what we will be hearing from the Egyptian officials in Cairo today or tomorrow," he told the al-Jazeera satellite channel.

Abu Zuhri said the issue of Sgt. Gilad Schalit, a captured Israeli soldier held by Hamas, would not be part of the deal. Israel has tried to link Schalit's release to reopening Gaza's borders. Hamas says Israel must free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including convicted murders, to win the soldier's freedom.

Despite the truce efforts, violence has been rising in recent days. Gaza militants fired at least 10 rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel on Sunday, wounding three people. Israel struck back with a series of attacks along the border area and in northern Gaza.

The tensions have raised the risk of fresh violence days ahead of Israel's national election. Continued fighting could work against the outgoing government and bolster hardline opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the current front-runner, in the Feb. 10 vote.

Israel, along with the U.S. and Europe, considers Hamas a terrorist group, and says it spread its radical ideology throughout the region. Netanyahu has made the Iranian threat, along with what he says is its pursuit of nuclear weapons, a centerpiece of his campaign.

Hamas' exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, met with Iran's president in Tehran on Monday and thanked the country for its support. Iran's state TV quoted Mashaal as saying Iran played a role in "the victory of Gaza's people."

Israel accuses Iran of supplying weapons to Hamas. Iran denies the charge, saying it supplies only money to the radical Islamic group.

In separate violence Monday, Israeli soldiers shot a Palestinian motorist near the West Bank city of Hebron after coming under fire from the car, the Israeli army said.

The army gave no details on the man's condition, but Israeli media said he was killed and had attacked the soldiers to protest Israel's recent Gaza offensive.

The West Bank and Gaza - areas both claimed by the Palestinians for a future independent state - lie on opposite sides of Israel.


AP correspondent Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

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