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Israeli airstrike kills senior Hamas aide, rocket maker

Obama prodding Abbas to resume talks, says PLO

By Ibrahim Barzak
Associated Press / August 1, 2010

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli warplanes fired missiles that killed a senior commander of the Hamas military wing and wounded 11 people in five targets hit across Gaza overnight, the group and the military said yesterday.

The Israeli military said the strikes were in response to a powerful rocket fired from Gaza that hit the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon on Friday, causing damage but no injuries.

Gaza’s Islamic militant Hamas rulers said their slain member was Issa Batran, 42, a commander of the group’s military wing and a senior rocket maker.

Batran had survived several previous Israeli attempts to kill him, but his wife and five of his children were killed during Israel’s three-week war in Gaza that ended in January 2009.

Later yesterday, some 3,000 Hamas loyalists marched in Batran’s funeral procession, firing guns, waving the group’s green banner and Palestinian flags. Batran was buried in a grave next to his wife and children.

In a separate development yesterday, a senior PLO official said President Obama has warned Mahmoud Abbas in a letter that US-Palestinian relations might suffer if the Palestinian leader refuses to resume direct peace talks with Israel.

The White House has been pushing Abbas hard in recent days to move quickly to face-to-face negotiations, but had no comment yesterday. The PLO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Obama sent the letter July 16.

Abbas had insisted that he will only negotiate once Israel commits to the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem. Israel’s prime minister refuses to be pinned down ahead of talks.

The cross-border violence in Gaza came after weeks of relative calm and raised concerns of further escalation.

A Hamas spokesman said the militant group would avenge Batran’s killing. “Hamas will not be quiet over the blood of its martyrs,’’ said Hamad al-Rakab. “Israel is opening all the gates of fire. This blood will cascade into rage and fire,’’ al-Rakab said.

Hamas said eight of its supporters and three civilians were also wounded in the airstrikes.

The strikes hit a tunnel under the Gaza-Egypt border used for smuggling weapons, the military said, as well as Batran’s shack in central Gaza, which was likely used to make rockets, and a Hamas military training camp in Gaza City.

Israel’s military says more than 400 rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza since its assault in the Hamas-run coastal area ended 19 months ago.

The Islamic militants have been building crude rockets for the past decade and have fired hundreds at Israeli border towns.

However, Hamas has largely held its fire since Israel’s military offensive against Gaza, and most of the 400 rockets were pelted by smaller militant groups. They were mostly crude, short-range rockets. However in Friday’s attack, Ashkelon was hit by a military-grade Grad rocket that can travel longer distances and cause far more damage.

There was no claim of responsibility for the strike on Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 located 11 miles to the north of Gaza.

Hamas has ruled Gaza since seizing power in 2007, wresting control from its Fatah rivals.

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