JERUSALEM — Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday fired a rocket into Israel for the first time since a cease-fire reached three months ago ended an Israeli offensive against the militant Islamist group Hamas, police said.
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, claimed responsibility. It called the firing a response to Saturday’s death in custody of a Palestinian who was being interrogated by Israel’s Shin Bet security agency.
A Grad rocket landed on a road outside the southern city of Ashkelon, causing damage but no casualties, said Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman. The attack was the first since rockets were fired deep into Israel in November during an eight-day Israeli military campaign to halt such attacks from the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli army said that in response to Tuesday’s attack, the Kerem Shalom border crossing, through which goods are shipped from Israel to the Gaza Strip, would be closed. In addition, the severely limited movement of people out of Gaza through the Erez border crossing would be further restricted and permitted only to medical patients traveling to Israel for treatment or other “exceptional cases,” the military said.
The death of the Palestinian prisoner, Arafat Jaradat, has heightened tensions in the West Bank after days of street protests in support of four other Palestinian inmates, who are on extended hunger strikes. Preliminary findings of an Israeli autopsy did not determine a cause of death, but a Palestinian forensic pathologist who attended the examination said it showed that Jaradat had been tortured.
In a statement sent to reporters, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades said the rocket attack was a response to the “assassination” of Jaradat and vowed to “resist our enemy with all means at our disposal.”
A spokesman in Gaza said the group had carried out the attack, which followed a written warning of retaliation distributed at Jaradat’s funeral at his home town in the West Bank on Monday.
Abbas, meanwhile, signaled that he was moving to rein in the protests that have led to a wave of stone-throwing clashes near Israeli army positions at flash points across the West Bank.
A statement from Abbas’s office said that at a meeting Monday night with his security chiefs, he instructed them “to protect the security and safety” of Palestinians, noting that “the policy of the occupation is to aggravate the situation and drag the area into chaos.”
Abbas sent a similar message at a meeting Tuesday of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Accusing Israel of using live ammunition against young protesters, Abbas said: “We don’t want tension and escalation. We want to reach a peaceful solution.”
Adnan Damiri, the spokesman for the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, said Hamas members had been recently detained for planning “violent confrontations,” the Associated Press reported.
“The only ones seeking violence in the West Bank are Netanyahu and Hamas, but we will not be dragged to that,” Damiri said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Our struggle will always be peaceful.”
Netanyahu on Sunday sent a message to the Palestinian Authority, demanding that it restore calm.
In Monday’s clashes, two Palestinian teenagers were seriously wounded by Israeli troops near the fortified shrine of Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, which is protected by a military guard tower.
A 13-year-old was hit by live fire, and a 16-year-old was struck in the head by a rubber-coated bullet, according to Palestinian medical officials. The Israeli army said live ammunition was used when youths hurled makeshift grenades, endangering Jewish worshipers, and that rubber bullets were used against a group that tried to set fire to an army position. The youth hit in the head was rushed to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where he was reported to be in critical condition.
The unrest comes weeks before a planned visit by President Obama to Israel and the West Bank. A State Department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, said Monday that the United States had asked Israeli and Palestinian officials to exercise “maximum restraint.”
“All parties should seriously consider the consequences of their actions, particularly at this very difficult moment,” he said.