Israeli aircraft strike Gaza targets
Jerusalem: Israeli aircraft attacked two suspected weapons-making factories and a smuggling tunnel in the Gaza Strip early Sunday in what the military said was retaliation for Palestinian rocket fire into southern Israel.
The airstrikes, which wounded at least seven people — including one seriously — came despite an announcement by Gaza`s Hamas rulers that the territory`s military factions had all agreed to stop firing rockets. The Hamas announcement came late Saturday, after the rocket attack.
Hamas` interior minister, Fathi Hamad, said the proclaimed halt in rocket fire was designed to prevent Israeli retaliation and provide stability for Gaza, which continues to suffer from the aftermath of a massive Israeli military offensive in December and January.
The offensive killed some 1,400 Palestinians, according to UN and Palestinian estimates, and damaged or destroyed thousands of homes. Thirteen Israelis also were killed. Most of the damage in Gaza has not been repaired due to an Israeli blockade that has prevented construction materials from entering the territory.
Israel said it launched the offensive to crush Palestinian rocket squads, who had severely disrupted life in southern Israel for years. While Hamas has all but halted its own rocket fire, smaller militant groups have continued to launch attacks, though the number of attacks has decreased dramatically.
On Sunday, Islamic Jihad, a smaller faction responsible for much of the rocket fire, said there is "no formal truce," but confirmed it would temporarily stop its attacks.
"Yes, there is a halt, but if there are attacks by the Zionist enemies, as there inevitably will be, there will be a response," said Khader Habib, a spokesman for the group.
An end to Palestinian rocket attacks could be an important step toward a broader prisoner swap deal between Israel and Hamas. The Iranian-backed Hamas is demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchanged for Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Hamas-allied militants more than three years ago.
Usama Mazeini, a Hamas official involved in the German-brokered negotiations over Schalit, told Hamas newsletter al-Risala on Saturday that the talks are close to resolving the "obstacles" that remain.
He gave no further details, but the publication quoted anonymous Hamas officials as saying a deal is "reaching completion."
Later Sunday, Israel`s army chief, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, said he was "sober" about the prospects for a deal but said media reports about the matter threatened progress.
"We have a deep commitment ... to bring him home, but I prefer to leave this effort behind the scenes."
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