GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—Hamas militants succeeded Tuesday in firing a rudimentary rocket into the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, a strike that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned would have "far-reaching consequences."
The Qassam rocket caused little damage, but it was the farthest into Israel that Palestinian militants have managed to hit in hundreds of strikes. They have caused widespread anxiety and prompted the Israeli military to launch wider operations to stop the launches from the Gaza Strip.
At a July 4 party at the home of the U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv, Olmert called the strike a "major escalation" and said Hamas would be "the first to feel" Israel's response.
The strike came amid Israel's expanding attempts to find one of its soldiers captured more than a week ago by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian militants issued an ultimatum Monday that Israel begin releasing hundreds of prisoners by dawn Tuesday, but Israel rejected the demands. The deadline passed with those holding Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, announcing that the time for negotiations had come to an end. Despite veiled threats, the Islamic Army also said that it would not kill Shalit.
"We don't kill our prisoners like the Zionists," Islamic Army spokesman Abu Muthana told the Maan News Agency. "We treat and respect them, and these are the qualities of Muslims."
Hours after the deadline passed, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Hamas-dominated government, urged the militants "not to close the door" to talks and to "use the language of wisdom and logic to end this."
The public comments kept alive shaky hopes of peacefully resolving the tense standoff that has been building since Palestinian militants, including Hamas gunmen, staged their June 25 cross-border raid that killed two Israeli soldiers and ended with Shalit's capture.
Within days, Israel staged a series of aggressive military moves designed to intimidate the militants and force Shalit's release. Israeli tanks took over the defunct Palestinian airport in southern Gaza, fighter jets buzzed Syrian President Bashar Assad's summer retreat, and soldiers arrested nearly three dozen officials from the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
In addition, for more than a week Israel has staged nightly airstrikes on targets across the Gaza Strip, including Haniyeh's office, a student building at Islamic University, and militant training camps.
On Tuesday, Israeli tanks crossed into northern Gaza to take up positions in the ruins of a Jewish settlement abandoned last summer when Israel officially ended 38 years of military rule by pulling out all its settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip.
The northern operation has emerged as a second front intended primarily to stop Palestinian militants from launching Qassam rockets into southern Israel.
Qassams usually land without causing much damage. But after dusk Tuesday, a Qassam hit the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon for the first time and the Hamas military wing claimed responsibility for the attack. Although the Qassam caused no injuries, it was the deepest a Qassam has reached into Israel and it could prompt a stronger military response.
Egyptian officials have been trying to work out a compromise. But diplomatic efforts have been complicated by a variety of factors. Israel refuses publicly to negotiate with the militants. The military and political wings of Hamas also appear to be at odds over whether to compromise.
Israeli commentators have begun voicing concerns that the crisis could turn into a prolonged standoff that could take months, if not years, to free Shalit.
Writing in the daily newspaper Ma'ariv, Amir Rappaport and Amit Cohen said Israel might be facing "a nightmare" that might mirror the case of Ron Arad, an Israeli navigator whose plane crashed during a 1986 attack on a Palestine Liberation Organization base in Lebanon.
Israel tried unsuccessfully for years to secure his release, but, to this day, his fate remains unclear. Militant leaders in Lebanon indicated this year that Arad was probably dead, but that has never been confirmed.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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