Israeli Airstrike Kills 3 Fighters in Gaza

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 26, 2009

GAZA CITY, Sept. 25 -- An Israeli airstrike Friday night killed three members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement who military officials said were on their way to fire rockets into Israel.

An Israel Defense Forces spokesman said the three men were hit near their vehicle in the Tufah area east of Gaza City about 8 p.m. A fourth man was injured, according to Palestinian officials.

The men were thought to be part of a group responsible for firing homemade Qassam rockets and mortar rounds into Israel in recent weeks, including two that fell on the border town of Sderot over the Rosh Hashanah holiday last weekend, the spokesman said.

The Islamic Jihad movement confirmed that the men were part of the group's armed wing, the al-Quds Brigades, but did not comment further.

The incident is apparently the first targeted airstrike since Israel's three-week war in the Gaza Strip in December and January and continues a recent round of back-and-forth attacks between the two sides.

In the months after the war, rocket fire and fighting between militants in Gaza and Israeli troops stationed near the border fell to a minimum.

The Islamist Hamas movement, which is in charge of Gaza, quelled its own fire after the war, and Israeli officials say it has tried to prevent other groups such as Islamic Jihad from firing as well.

But that relative lull has still involved about 240 rockets and mortar shells being launched from Gaza since the war ended, according to Israeli military statistics, including about 50 since July.

Most have fallen harmlessly on empty land, and Israel often has bombed smuggling tunnels along the Egyptian border in response.

There has also been a steady spate of cross-border incidents involving mortar rounds and gunfire directed against Israeli troops, efforts to plant explosives along a border fence and sometimes-fatal fire from Israeli forces. Israeli troops killed two men in one exchange this month, and four died in June after an intense clash in which as many as 10 gunmen, including some on horseback, battled Israeli soldiers.

In the incident Friday, Israeli officials said they tracked a planned attack through intelligence sources and then fired on the men as they got out of their vehicle.

The incident occurred as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked the U.N. General Assembly for international pressure on Israel to lift the tight restrictions it placed on Gaza after Hamas took control of the area two years ago.

Israel says it intends to keep the restrictions in place at least until Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, now more than three years in captivity, is released. It also sees the restrictions as a way to weaken Hamas.

Special correspondent Islam Abdel Kareem contributed to this report.

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