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Israel Fights Back As Hamas Rockets Hit Sderot

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After days of holding its fire while Hamas battled rival Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and fired rockets over the border, Israel is fighting back.

The air force struck repeatedly in Gaza on Wednesday, killing five Hamas terrorists in operations on a scale not seen in months. Israel threatened further escalation unless the shelling of Sderot and other southern Israeli towns stopped.

“Until now we have demonstrated restraint, but this situation is not a tolerable situation,” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters after closed-door consultations with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Olmert’s office said he had authorized a series of military strikes against Palestinian rocket crews and their commanders, a signal that Israel could resume its controversial “targeted killings” of terrorist leaders in Gaza.

The announcements followed a surge of rocket salvoes on Sderot that injured dozens of residents, prompted hundreds of others to flee in panic and stoked calls for a large-scale Israeli ground sweep of Gaza.

While no one has illusions that a truce called by Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in November is still in force, Israel is not expected to give its military free rein yet.

Israeli officials believe one of Hamas’ aims in stepping up rocket attacks is to prompt the sort of fierce Israeli retaliation that could unite Palestinians and stem what appears to be a civil war brewing in Gaza. That may not suit Israel and Western powers, which have been hoping for Hamas to fail since it swept Palestinian Authority elections a year ago and then refused international peacemaking demands.

Abbas, meanwhile, has been trying to find ways to marginalize Hamas while preventing his more moderate Fatah faction from being cast as an Israeli stooge.

The Hamas-Fatah clashes erupted May 11 and have raged despite at least two high-level cease-fire calls. More than 40 peop! le have been killed, some in street-corner executions.

Apartment blocks have been set aflame in sights recalling Sarajevo or Mogadishu during their darkest days. Palestinians have described the strife as a “second nakba,” a reference to the Arabic term for the “catastrophe” of Israel’s creation.

Earlier this week Israel gave its permission for the Rafah crossing on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt to be opened so a 450-strong detachment of Fatah fighters beneficiaries of U.S.-sponsored training and equipment could enter. Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres said more help could be coming.

“We should help Mr. Abbas in his fight against the terrorists,” he said. “We can only respond to Mr. Abbas’ requests for help. We will not intervene in the war itself, but if Mr. Abbas will request specific help, we will supply” it.

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