Violence breaks quiet of cease-fire on eve of Israel's national election
GAZA CITY - Israeli aircraft struck two targets in the Gaza Strip and a Gaza militant died in a clash with troops on the border yesterday, as an official of the moderate Palestinian government accused Hamas of trying to boost hawkish candidates in Israel's election.
The violence on the eve of the vote occurred as Egyptian mediators continued their efforts to cement a long-term cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, after the three weeks of intense fighting that racked the coastal territory last month.
Israel's military said the two air strikes early in the day targeted militant positions and were a response to rocket fire from Gaza aimed at southern Israel on Sunday.
The military also said soldiers spotted an armed militant trying to sneak into Israel from Gaza overnight and opened fire, after which a bomb belt the man was wearing detonated. The militant group Islamic Jihad said that one of its fighters had been killed, but blamed an air strike.
Riad Malki, foreign minister in the moderate Palestinian government based in the West Bank, charged that Gaza's Hamas fighters were firing rockets into Israel in hopes of influencing today's national election.
He said Hamas didn't want to see a pro-peace government elected in Israel because it would pursue a political deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Islamic militant group "wants instability in the region," Malki said during a visit to Poland. Abbas's government is "very much worried" that the rocket attacks might "really push Israeli public opinion and the voters to vote for an anti-peace government," Malki told reporters in Warsaw.
Citing security concerns, Israel imposed a closure on the West Bank during the voting, banning Palestinians from entering Israel. A military statement said exceptions would be made for humanitarian cases. Gaza Palestinians are barred from Israel under a longstanding order.
The violence coincided with stepped-up efforts to strengthen the shaky cease-fire that ended Israel's devastating offensive. Israel unilaterally ended its offensive Jan. 18 and Hamas announced its own cease-fire the same day, but clashes have continued. In talks being mediated by Egypt, Hamas is seeking to get Gaza's blockaded border crossings open, while Israel wants an end to arms smuggling into the territory and the return of a soldier captured in June 2006.
A delegation from Hamas was in Damascus yesterday to consult with the Islamic movement's exiled leadership.