Conflict returns to the Gaza Strip

tel aviv | Following rocket attacks from Hamas, Israeli aircraft fired missiles into Gaza and troops arrested dozens of militants in the West Bank. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel would renew its policy of pinpoint killings of militants and dismissed as “inadequate” a militant leader’s call for a halt to the attacks on Israel.

Hamas claimed the arrests were motivated by a desire to weaken the group ahead of Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for January.

Just two weeks after Israel ended its 38-year occupation of Gaza, Palestinians have renewed fighting. Hamas militants launched dozens of rockets at southern Israel over the weekend, provoking Israeli airstrikes that killed four militants and destroyed suspected weapons facilities in Gaza.

Asked if Israel’s defense policy included targeted killings of militants, Mofaz told Army Radio it “includes everything the state of Israel knows how to do.”

“The minute there isn’t quiet, the terrorist groups won’t know quiet,” Mofaz told reporters later.

He threatened Hamas’ current leaders with the fate of two others who fell victim to Israeli targeted killings. “If Mahmoud Zahar or Ismail Haniya continue firing rockets, we will send them to place where (Abdel Aziz) Rantisi and (Sheikh Ahmed) Yassin are.”

Israel killed dozens of militants in targeted attacks in more than four years of violence but suspended the practice after February’s cease-fire with the Palestinians. Mofaz’s statement about Israel’s defense policy was his first public acknowledgment that targeted killings had resumed.

Mofaz also said an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza would be possible as a last resort.

Mofaz scoffed at a call by Hamas leader Zahar to halt the rocket attacks, saying his “words do not satisfy me.” Attacks by Hamas proxies haven’t stopped, and other militant leaders must also join the call, he said.

On Tuesday, Sept. 27, Israeli aircraft fired missiles at three access roads in northern Gaza leading to staging areas for rocket attacks, the military said. Palestinian officials said one missile destroyed a bridge.

Israeli helicopters also fired two missiles at the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis. Palestinian security officials said an office belonging to the ruling Fatah movement and a money-changing store were hit. Israel said the money changer was a Hamas front.

Israel arrested hundreds of Palestinian militants in the West Bank in tandem with the military offensive. The military said 82 Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists were arrested overnight, in addition to 297 militants taken into custody in the previous two days.

Hamas leaders accused Israel of targeting its political leaders, and said key candidates for Palestinian parliament elections in January were among those rounded up. Sharon said he doesn’t want Hamas to participate in the election unless it disarms.

“Sharon doesn’t want Hamas to reach the Palestinian parliament,” said Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri. “He is using every possible means to block Hamas and push it aside.”

The new violence started after a blast last week at a Hamas rally in Gaza’s Jebaliya refugee camp killed 21 people, including a 7-year-old boy who died of his wounds Tuesday, Sept. 27. Hamas claimed that Israeli aircraft had fired missiles into the crowd, which Israel denied. The Palestinian Authority said the blast was caused when heavily armed Hamas militants mishandled explosives at the rally. Also Tuesday, the Palestinian Interior Ministry published a forensic report saying that shrapnel found in the bodies of the victims came from Hamas’ homemade rockets.