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Israel Threatens to Renew Attacks

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The Associated Press
Wednesday, December 27, 2006; 5:14 PM

JERUSALEM -- After weeks of restraint, Israel said Wednesday that it will renew attacks on rocket-launching militants in the Gaza Strip, threatening to derail an already shaky, month-old truce.

A new round of fighting in Gaza could undermine Israel's efforts to bolster the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in his standoff with the Islamic militants of Hamas who control the Palestinian government and legislature.

The Israeli decision, made at a meeting of top officials, came hours after a Palestinian rocket seriously wounded two Israeli teenage boys in the southern town of Sderot, next to Gaza.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said Israeli retaliation would be limited to "pinpoint" operations meant to foil rocket launches. "At the same time, Israel will continue to abide by the cease-fire," the statement said.

The truce was reached Nov. 26, ending five months of deadly fighting in Gaza. But since the cease-fire declaration, more than 60 rockets have been fired at Israel, the army said.

Israel has so far refrained from responding, but Olmert had warned in recent days his patience was wearing thin. The wounding of the two boys late Tuesday increased pressure on Olmert from political opponents and members of his Cabinet to take action.

Hamas government spokeswoman Ghazi Hamad denounced the Israeli decision to "continue their aggression against our people," but added: "We still believe that this agreement is alive, and both sides should respect this agreement because it is (in) the interest (of) our people."

Hamad's comments were directed not only at Israel, but also at the rival militant group Islamic Jihad, which has been responsible for most of the rocket fire. After the Israeli threat of retaliation, Islamic Jihad fired another rocket. There were no reports of damage or injuries.

The fate of the truce appeared to lie in the hands of Islamic Jihad, a tiny Iranian-backed group that wants to destroy Israel and replace it with an Islamic state. Over the past two years, Islamic Jihad has repeatedly sabotaged efforts to halt violence, firing rockets and carrying out a string of suicide bombings.

Islamic Jihad officials said the rocket fire was meant to avenge Israeli arrest raids in the West Bank, which is not covered by the truce. The group also believes that igniting conflict with Israel will help unite Palestinians after a bitter round of infighting that has killed 17 people this month.

"That's one of the main reasons for resuming attacks," said Abu Ahmad, a spokesman for the group.

The infighting has pitted Hamas, which also rejects Israel's existence, against Abbas' more moderate Fatah. Hamas, which won legislative elections early this year, controls most government functions. Abbas, who was elected in a separate presidential vote, hopes to restart peace talks with Israel.

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