Israel and Gazans trade threats

War of words follows Israel's killing of two members of al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad.

      Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros reports on tensions before second anniversary of Israel's war on Gaza


    Israel and Palestinian armed groups have traded threats after two Islamic Jihad fighters were killed in fresh skirmishes along the tense Gaza Strip border.

    On Sunday morning, Israeli forces, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, killed the two Islamic Jihad members, who, according to Israel and Islamic Jihad group, were trying to place a bomb along the Gaza border.

    Witnesses also said Israeli tanks fired at least 10 shells towards Khan Yunis, damaging three homes but causing no casualties.

    Late on Sunday, the Israeli military said two rockets fired from Gaza landed in the Eshkol region of the southern Negev desert, causing no casualties.

    The escalation of violence came on the eve of the second anniversary of Israel's devastating "Operation Cast Lead" assault on Hamas-controlled Gaza and followed weeks of rocket fire from Gaza and retaliatory Israeli air raids.

    Turning up the rhetoric, both sides blame each other for violating the truce and say that they are prepared for another round of bloodletting.

    "I hope there is no need for another operation like Cast Lead," Silvan Shalom, Israel's deputy prime minister , told public radio before a cabinet meeting.

    "But if this situation continues - if missiles keep being smuggled in without hindrance, if they continue shooting into Israel, trying to hit innocent civilians - then, obviously we will have to respond and respond with all our force," he said.

    Gaza fighters

    At the funeral for two members of Islamic Jihad killed in an early morning exchange of fire with Israeli troops, mourners called on the military wings of Islamic Jihad and Hamas to take revenge on Israel.

    Abu Ahmed, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad's military wing, said the group was prepared.

    "The occupation will pay the price if they even think of carrying out an escalation in the Gaza Strip," he told mourners.

    On Saturday, Hamas's military wing also reiterated its battle readiness.

    "There is a truce in effect in the field. It is real if Israel stops its aggression and ends its siege. But if there is any Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip we will respond strongly," a masked spokesman for the group, who identified himself as Abu Obeida, said.

    But an Israeli official said on Sunday that Hamas was doing its best to avoid an escalation because it was not prepared for a major showdown.

    The Islamic movement "does not want a confrontation at this stage. It is doing everything to prevent the situation from degenerating," Amos Gilad, a senior defence ministry official, said on Israeli television.

    He said Hamas wanted "to maintain the ceasefire so as to be better prepared for any Israeli offensive".

    Escalation of violence

    Tension has been rising on the Gaza border, where armed groups have fired dozens of mortar rounds and rockets into southern Israel.

    In response, Israel has launched a series of air raids that it said targeted training facilities and smuggling tunnels.

    Israel's military said earlier this month that one of its tanks patrolling the Gaza border had been hit by a Russian-made Kornet anti-tank rocket, the first time such a weapon had been encountered there.

    On Saturday, Hamas hinted it possessed a secret weapon. "Our weapons are few compared to those of the Israeli occupation, but we have something that will worry the occupation," Abu Obeida said.

    At least 23 mortar rounds and six rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza in the past week, the army said, including a Qassam rocket that struck near a kindergarten in a southern Israeli kibbutz, wounding a teenage girl.

    While most of the rockets have been fired by other groups, Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for maintaining calm in Gaza.

    On December 27, 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in response to hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza.

    The war, which ended in a ceasefire on January 18, 2009, killed 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 13 Israelis, 10 of them soldiers.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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