Israel to renew attacks on Gaza rocket squads

The Israeli government on Wednesday ordered the military to resume targeting militants spotted firing rockets from the Gaza Strip but said its month-long ceasefire with the Palestinians would otherwise remain in force.

The government ended its policy of restraint in the face of ceasefire violations after one of eight rockets fired at Israel on Tuesday wounded two youths in the southern town of Sderot, one of them seriously.

A statement said the military was authorised to make pinpoint strikes against Palestinian rocket squads, apparently ruling out a wide-ranging response that would scupper the truce agreed in late November.

Ehud Olmert, prime minister, had been under pressure from inside and outside his cabinet to end the policy of restraint in the face of continuing rocket attacks, many of them claimed by the Islamic Jihad movement, which has no political role in the Palestinian Authority.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for a solitary rocket that landed outside Sderot on Wednesday as harsh weather conditions and low visibility limited the Israeli military’s options.

Militant groups have justified continued rocket attacks as retaliation for Israeli operations in the West Bank, where top members of Islamic Jihad and the Fatah-linked Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades were seized in recent days.

Wednesday’s government statement said Israel would continue its policy of liaising with Palestinian security officials as part of efforts to stem the rocket fire.

The ceasefire followed a big Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip, the latest of a series of operations this year in which hundreds of Palestinians, many of them civilians, were killed, but which nevertheless failed to end the rocket attacks.

A month of relative calm opened the way for a recent summit meeting between Mr Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, at which the Israeli leader agreed to unfreeze $100m of Palestinian tax revenues, around one-sixth of the dues it has withheld since the Islamist Hamas movement came to power.

The concessions offered to Mr Abbas failed to stir much excitement in the Palestinian territories, where the summit had given rise to hopes that Israel might be ready to release large numbers of detainees and substantially ease restrictions on Palestinian movement.

Mr Abbas has established a committee to negotiate prisoner releases but its prospects are limited until Palestinian militants free Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier abducted in June.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, visiting foreign minister of Egypt, which is closely involved in co-ordinating security in Gaza, yesterday said Egypt was working for Corporal Shalit’s release.

Mr Olmert told Mr Abbas at the weekend that Israel would remove up to 27 of several hundred military checkpoints in the West Bank.

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