Hamas says group’s senior rocket maker killed, 11 wounded in Israeli air strikes

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Israeli airstrike kills senior Hamas rocket maker

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli warplanes fired missiles, killing a senior commander of the Hamas military wing and wounding 11 people in five targets hit across Gaza overnight, the group and the military said Saturday.

The Israeli military said the strikes were in response to a powerful rocket fired from Gaza that hit the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon on Friday, causing damage but no injuries.

Gaza’s Islamic militant Hamas rulers said their slain member was Issa Batran, 42, a commander of the groups’ military wing in central Gaza and a senior rocket maker.

Batran had survived several previous Israeli attempts to kill him, but his wife and five of his children were killed during Israel’s three-week war in Gaza that ended in January 2009.

Later Saturday, some 3,000 Hamas loyalists marched in Batran’s funeral procession, firing guns, waving the group’s green banner and Palestinian flags. Batran was buried in a grave next to his wife and children.

The cross-border violence came after weeks of relative calm and raised concerns of further escalation.

A Hamas spokesman said the militant group would avenge Batran’s killing.

“Hamas will not be quiet over the blood of its martyrs,” said Hamad al-Rakab. “Israel is opening all the gates of fire. This blood will cascade into rage and fire,” al-Rakab said.

Hamas said eight of its supporters and three civilians were also wounded in the overnight airstrikes.

The strikes hit a smuggling tunnel that runs under the Gaza-Egypt border used for smuggling weapons, the military said, as well as Batran’s shack in central Gaza, which was likely used to make rockets, and a Hamas military training camp in Gaza City.

Israel’s military says more than 400 rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza since Israel ended its punishing assault in the Hamas-run coastal area 19 months ago.

The Islamic militants have been building crude rockets for the past decade, and have fired hundreds of them at Israeli border towns.

However, Hamas has largely held its fire since Israel’s military offensive against Gaza, and most of the 400 rockets were pelted by smaller militant groups. They were mostly crude, short-range rockets. However in Friday’s attack, Ashkelon was hit by a military-grade Grad rocket that can travel longer distances and cause far more damage.

There was no claim of responsibility for the strike on Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 located 11 miles (18 kilometers) to the north of Gaza and a short drive from Israel’s main population center in Tel Aviv.

Hamas has ruled Gaza since seizing power in 2007, wresting control from their Fatah rivals of the internationally backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Also Saturday, Israeli forces wounded a Gaza man who strayed near to the large concrete wall separating the two territories.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said the man was part of a group that ignored warning shots by soldiers. She said soldiers then fired toward the men’s lower bodies to keep them away from the border area. The spokeswoman spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.

Israel maintains a system of warning shots, then a shoot-to-kill policy for Palestinians who approach the Gaza-Israel border. The policy was initially created to scare off militants firing rockets close to the sensitive area, but it also endangers impoverished Gazans who frequently haul donkey carts close to the border to gather pebbles, which they later sell to builders to make cement, and to collect scrap metal to recycle.

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