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Rockets, airstrikes follow attack on Israel

| Friday, Aug. 19, 2011

JERUSALEM — Gaza militants launched barrages of rockets deep into Israel early today and Israeli aircraft struck targets in the Palestinian territory in the aftermath of the deadliest attack against Israelis in three years.

On Thursday, gunmen who appear to have originated in Gaza and who crossed into southern Israel through the Egyptian desert ambushed civilian vehicles traveling on a remote road in southern Israel, killing eight people. Six were civilians, and two were members of Israeli security forces responding to the incursion.

The attack signaled a new danger for Israel from its border with the Sinai Peninsula, long quiet under the rule of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak was deposed in February and the desert of the Sinai Peninsula - always restive and largely controlled by Bedouin tribes - has become increasingly lawless.

Israel responded hours after the attack with an airstrike that killed five members of the Palestinian group that Israel said was behind it, an organization known as the Popular Resistance Committees. The dead included the group's leader.

A spokesman for the group, Abu Mujahid, would not confirm or deny responsibility for the attack inside Israel, but said militants would avenge the killing of the men in Gaza.

Hamas denied any connection with the attacks, but hurriedly evacuated all of its security facilities Thursday in anticipation of more Israeli retaliation. Those strikes continued through the night, targeting what the military said were smuggling tunnels and sites used by gunmen.

Hamas officials said two children, 3 and 13, were killed in the Israeli strikes.

The Israeli military's chief spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, said it was "too early" to say that a broad escalation in Gaza was imminent.

"If we see that Hamas is choosing to escalate, we will not hesitate to expand the scope of our actions, respond in strength and exact a price from Hamas," he told Army Radio on Friday morning.

Militants in Gaza launched at least 10 rockets into Israel on Friday, the military said. One, aimed at the city of Ashkelon, was intercepted by the new Israeli anti-missile system known as Iron Dome. Another hit the port city of Ashdod and wounded six Israelis, according to Israeli emergency services.

Israel's south has been equipped with early warning systems and bomb shelters over years of rocket fire from Gaza, and those measures have helped keep casualties low.

The attacks focused Israel's attention on its border with Egypt - 125 miles (200 kilometers) of mountainous desert with no fence for most of its length. The border has traditionally been crossed mainly by Bedouin smugglers ferrying drugs and thousands of African asylum-seekers into Israel.

Thursday's attack - the deadliest for Israel since a Palestinian gunman killed eight people in a Jerusalem religious seminary in 2008 - took place near Israel's popular Red Sea resort city of Eilat, currently at the height of the tourist season.

Though the desert outside Eilat showed signs of an increased military presence on Friday morning, the city itself appeared unaffected. Joggers and cyclists were visible along the beach.

Resident Zion Cohen, 53, said the steady stream of African migrants crossing the border with ease in recent years showed that an incursion like the one on Thursday was only a matter of time.

"What bothers me is the unbearable ease with which they cross the border and the knowledge that ... every day, every minute and every hour something can happen like yesterday," Cohen said.

A new fence is currently under construction, and the military says it will be complete by the end of 2012.

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