Palestinian rocket attacks test Gaza cease-fire

Palestinians are seen through a hole in a wall after the Israeli army destroyed a house during a military operation in the West Bank town of Nablus on Tuesday.
Palestinians are seen through a hole in a wall after the Israeli army destroyed a house during a military operation in the West Bank town of Nablus on Tuesday. Nasser Ishtayeh / AP

JERUSALEM — Palestinian militants fired three homemade rockets into southern Israel on Tuesday, jeopardizing Israel's six-day-old cease-fire with Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip.

The rockets caused minimal damage but presented an early test for Hamas leaders in Gaza, who'd agreed to halt Palestinian militant attacks on Israel.

Israeli leaders condemned the attack but stopped short of immediately declaring the tenuous Egyptian-brokered cease-fire dead.

"What happened today is a flagrant and grave violation," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The rocket attacks came hours after Olmert met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, to discuss the next steps in the six-month truce.

"We have strong understandings with the Egyptians concerning how things would develop," Regev said. "There's a step-by-step process in the framework of the calm, and that assumption is at least questionable at the moment."

He added: "We are keeping our cards close to our chest."

Islamic Jihad militants in the Gaza Strip took responsibility for breaking the cease-fire and said the rocket attacks came in response to an Israeli military raid in the West Bank city of Nablus that killed one of its members.

Islamic Jihad vowed to respond with further attacks if Israel continued its operations in the West Bank, though the cease-fire deal applies only to the Gaza Strip.

Hamas leaders met Islamic Jihad militants Tuesday night in an attempt to prevent the group from breaking the accord. "Hamas will continue its commitment to the calm, and we call on all Palestinian parties to do the same," Hamas leader Fawzi Barhoum said.

The fragile truce was first broken around midnight Tuesday when Gaza militants fired a single mortar into southern Israel. The more serious attacks came Tuesday afternoon, when Islamic Jihad members fired three rockets in two rounds at the southern Israeli town of Sderot.

Sderot residents went scrambling for bomb shelters as the crude rockets hit an empty building in the center of town and its outlying industrial zone.

"We expected this, because we know that Palestinians have not respected agreements in the past," said Shalom Halevi, a Sderot spokesman, who urged Israel to declare the truce dead and stage a military invasion of Gaza to combat the rocket attacks.

Under the Egyptian-brokered deal, Israel agreed to stop its attacks on Gaza militants and gradually ease the year-old economic embargo that's deepened the desperation for the Gaza Strip's 1.5 million residents. In exchange, Hamas agreed to stop all attacks from Gaza.

The calm was expected to help set the stage for intense negotiations meant to secure freedom for Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants who will begin his third year in captivity Wednesday.

Israel is expected to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners to secure Shalit's freedom, but the negotiations have long been held up by Israel's refusal to release some high-level militants who helped plan and carry out attacks on Israelis in recent years.

On Wednesday, Egypt reportedly agreed to keep its Rafah border crossing with Gaza sealed until a deal on Shalit was secured.

Before the attacks, Egyptian and Israeli officials indicated that they were prepared to accelerate talks on the issue.

Tuesday's attacks came as French President Nicolas Sarkozy wrapped up a three-day visit to Israel that came to a dramatic end on the airport tarmac when an Israeli police officer nearby committed suicide.

As Sarkozy and his entourage were saying farewell to Olmert and Israeli President Shimon Peres, security officials nearby heard a single shot. Security teams rushed past honor guards onto the red carpet and hustled the world leaders away.

Sarkozy's wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, rushed up the steps and into the airplane as the French president was gently led into the plane, leaving some of his confused ministers and staff waiting on the tarmac.

Olmert and Peres were led to armored cars nearby until security discovered the body of the 35-year-old Israeli border guard about 200 yards away. The man apparently killed himself with a single gunshot, Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said.

(Special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamdan contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.)