Israel closes beaches after explosives wash ashore
Jerusalem: Israeli police cordoned off beaches along a 25-mile (40-kilometer) area north of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday after two barrels carrying explosive devices washed up on Israeli shores.
Palestinian militants claimed responsibility for the failed attack, which came amid heightened tensions over the assassination of a Hamas commander in Dubai last month.
While Israel has not commented on the killing, Gaza's Hamas rulers and their Iranian patrons have blamed the Jewish state.
Israeli police said the two barrels, each containing 22 pounds (10 kilograms) of explosives, washed up on Israel's shores late Monday, first in the port city of Ashkelon and several hours later in Ashdod to the north.
A bomb squad defused one barrel, while the explosives in the second blew up while a robot was inspecting them. There were no injuries.
"The attack was an intended terrorist attack that failed," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. "Police assessed the security situation throughout last night and continue to keep the beaches closed."
Then on Tuesday, a rocket from Gaza exploded in an open field in southern Israel, causing no injuries or damage. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Maritime authorities warned sailors and fishermen to be alert to possible dangers in the waters, surfers were ordered out of the water and the public was told to keep away. In Ashdod, a massive crane-like robot crawled along the beach, prodding suspicious objects.
"The beach is closed, boats are patrolling the waters, there are no people around, helicopters are in the air looking for more explosive barrels," restaurant owner Lee Voldberg told Army Radio from Ashdod.
Meir Chakmon, a police spokesman in Ashkelon, said authorities resumed the search at the crack of dawn.
"At this stage nothing else has been found. We are continuing the search. We think there is a possibility that new explosive devices will surface," he said. "We don't know how many are in the sea."
Three militant factions in Gaza took responsibility for the attack, saying in a joint statement that they sent a total of eight explosives to Ashkelon on Friday and detonated them by remote control.
Hamas was not among the factions to sign the statement, though one of the groups, the Popular Resistance Committees, has close ties with the Islamic militant group.
Hamas has been careful to maintain an informal cease-fire since Israel ended a brutal military offensive in Gaza a year ago. At the same time, the group is furious over the mysterious death of one of its commanders in a Dubai hotel last month.
On Tuesday, Iran also accused Israel, calling the assassination "yet another example of state-sponsored Israeli terrorism." Israel officials have said the commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was involved in smuggling rockets from Iran to Gaza.
The heightened tensions have complicated prisoner-swap negotiations between the two sides. But Ayman Taha, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said the talks — through German and Egyptian mediators — would continue.
"We say that the present circumstances are not appropriate to continue negotiations for a prisoner swap deal, but we don't say that the negotiations have ceased completely," Taha said.
The two sides have been trying to reach a deal to trade Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners Israel holds. Schalit was captured by Hamas-linked militants in June 2006.