updated 5/30/2005 4:51:08 AM ET 2005-05-30T08:51:08

Violence flared in Gaza with an Israeli airstrike on Palestinian rocket launchers just hours after Israel’s Cabinet approved the release of 400 prisoners as a gesture to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

The Israeli airstrike early Monday was a rare attack since a February truce. The Israeli military said the air force targeted rocket launchers just before an attack was to be launched from northern Gaza, and two launchers were destroyed.

Hospital officials said a man and two women, apparently bystanders, were wounded by shrapnel. Palestinians said unmanned aircraft fired the missiles, but the military would not comment on that.

The violent Islamic Jihad said one of its cells, which minutes earlier fired three rockets at an Israeli village just outside Gaza, was the target of the airstrike.

Strikes, counterstrikes
An Israeli missile strike during a flare-up of mortar and rocket fire 10 days ago in southern Gaza seemed to spur the militants on to more violence, the longest sustained fighting since the truce, which is aimed at stopping a four-year conflict.

In two other incidents Sunday, three Palestinian militants were killed when their weapons exploded. One died as he was trying to fire a grenade at Israelis in southern Gaza, the military and Palestinians said.

Two other militants were killed and three seriously wounded when explosives they were carrying blew up, Palestinians said. Residents said they belonged to the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent group linked to Abbas’ Fatah Party.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the Cabinet decision to free 400 prisoners was “part of Israel’s effort to help Abu Mazen (Abbas) and the moderate Palestinian forces.”

Previously Israel had said the Palestinian Authority must disarm militants and halt all violence before Israel continues steps agreed to under the Feb. 8 truce.

The truce emerged from Sharon’s summit with Abbas in Egypt. The package included an end to violence, handover of five West Bank towns to Palestinian control and release of 900 prisoners.

Israel freed 500 prisoners and turned over two towns but stopped the process at that point, charging that the Palestinians had failed to carry out their pledge to disarm the militants in the towns under their control. Also, Israel complained, Palestinian militants still attempt many attacks that are foiled by Israeli security.

Though he approved freeing 400 prisoners as a gesture, Sharon told his Cabinet that Israel has “very grave complaints” about Abbas’ performance in reining in militants, according to a statement from Sharon’s office.

Prisoner release sparks dispute
Justice Ministry spokesman Jacob Galanti said the prisoner release could take place as early as Thursday, after the names of the prisoners are published and opponents have a chance to object.

Palestinians criticized the decision, saying Israel broke its agreement to consult them on which prisoners to release.

The Palestinians demanded the release of 360 prisoners who have been in jail for more than a decade, but Israel refused to free prisoners involved in violence, said Issa Karake, a member of a Palestinian committee that was to have negotiated the release with Israel.

More than 7,000 Palestinians are in Israeli custody, many rounded up by troops during more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

In ABC TV interview broadcast Sunday, Abbas said he has succeeded in countering the “culture of violence” among his people, and there would be no more suicide bombings. But he warned that if progress toward a peace agreement is not achieved in meetings with Sharon next month, “despair and loss of hope will come back and a (bring) return to the old ideas” of armed resistance.

Israelis, meanwhile, charge that violent Palestinian groups are merely using the cease-fire to replenish their stocks of weapons and explosives.

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