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Monday, March 3, 2008       Free Headline Alerts

Israel answers Hamas rocket salvos with major Gaza offensive

GAZA CITY — Israeli forces struck targets in the Gaza Strip and engaged in the heaviest fighting since the establishment of the Hamas regime in June 2007.

Palestinian gunners fired more than 50 missiles and rockets throughout southern Israel in battles that killed two soldiers and injured five civilians during the weekend, Middle East Newsline reported. Israel's military struck Hamas targets and at least 61 Palestinians were killed before Israeli forces withdrew.

"If they decided stupidly to invade Gaza, we will fight them with God's help," Hamas leader Khaled Masha'al said. "We will fight them like lions."

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The Israeli military operation was one of the largest in nearly a year. The military deployed helicopters, main battle tanks and armored combat vehicles in a raid of several areas of the Gaza Strip, including Gaza City.

"Hamas is directly responsible for the current situation and will be the one to bear the cost of our response," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. "An Israeli response is necessary and will be carried out."

Hamas said more than 60 Palestinians were killed and 160 were injured. Palestinian gunners, however, continued to fire Kassam-class, short-range missiles and Katyusha rockets into Israel.

The Israeli operation was focused on the Palestinian refugee camp of Jebalya, said to contain missile production facilities. Hamas combatants deployed heavy machine-guns, mortars and anti-tank missiles.

By late Saturday, more than 40 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were killed in Jebalya. The fighting was said to have continued into Sunday.

Hamas fired at least nine BM-21 Grad rockets toward the Israeli city of Ashkelon. The Israeli military reported an air force strike on a Hamas truck that contained 160 rockets "intended to be launched at Israel."

"Following the Grad missile barrage into Ashkelon, the Home Front Command began to set off warning sirens throughout the city," the military statement said. "The warning sirens will also be put into use in neighboring towns."

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