Gaza, Jan 29: Israeli warplanes bombed a weapons production facility in Gaza on Thursday after militants fired a rocket at Israel, in violence that defied the efforts of a visiting US peace envoy to reinforce a ceasefire.
There were no reports of injuries from the predawn Israeli strike in the town of Rafah, along Gaza's border with Egypt. Witnesses and Hamas Islamists said a metal foundry was damaged.
Moments earlier, a militant group with links to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement claimed responsibility for firing a rocket at southern Israel late on Wednesday.
The rocket was the first fired from Gaza since Israel and Hamas called separate ceasefires ending a 22-day Israeli offensive on January 18.
It caused no casualties, but Israeli leaders facing a February 10 election in a campaign focused on security concerns, have vowed to respond to rocket salvoes its offensive in Gaza had aimed to curtail.
Israel has said it will hold Gaza's Hamas rulers responsible for all attacks launched from the coastal territory, and had warned of a stronger response to the killing of a soldier on Tuesday in an explosion by a Gaza border fence.
"Israel will respond very severely," an Israeli security source said on Wednesday, and added, "we haven't seen it all," referring to the Israeli air strikes carried out earlier in the day on tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
"We will remain ready, with our finger on the trigger around the clock," Benjamin Ben-Eliezer of Israel's decision-making security cabinet said in remarks televised on Wednesday.
Hamas defended Tuesday's bombing, citing the killing of two Palestinians by Israel last week. Israeli forces killed one Palestinian, identified by Gaza medical workers as a farmer after the bombing and later wounded a militant on a motorcycle.
Violence clouds US envoy visit
The violence clouded a visit by US President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy, former US Senator George Mitchell, who said in Jerusalem on Wednesday it was "of critical importance that the ceasefire be extended and consolidated" with respect to Israel and Gaza.
Mitchell met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday and will meet Abbas on Thursday.
Western diplomats said Mitchell would not meet Hamas, a group shunned by the US and Europe for it refusal to recognise Israel.
Mitchell said on Wednesday any durable truce between Israel and Hamas must end smuggling into Gaza and reopen border crossings controlled by Israel to relieve its economic blockade of the enclave where half the 1.5 million people depend on food aid.
He cited a US-brokered 2005 agreement calling for forces loyal to Abbas to be deployed in Gaza. Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas' forces in 2007, a year after the Islamists won a Parliamentary Election.
"President Obama has said the United States is committed to Israel's security and to its right to defend itself against legitimate threats," Mitchell said.
"The President has also said the United States will sustain an active commitment toward reaching the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security," he added.
Olmert told Mitchell that Israel would object to reopening any crossings with Gaza save to permit the flow of vital aid to the territory, until an Israeli soldier captured in 2006 was freed, an Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We don't intend to open the crossings before Gilad Shalit returns home," Ben-Eliezer, the Israeli cabinet minister said, referring to the soldier seized by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid.
Israeli leaders fear Hamas could rebuild tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border to replenish an arsenal of rockets used in attacks on its southern communities that disrupt life for tens of thousands of citizens.
Some 1,300 Palestinians, including at least 700 civilians, were killed in the offensive, the Hamas-run Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip said. Israel put its death toll in the war at 10 soldiers and three civilians.
First Published: Thursday, January 29, 2009, 00:00