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Truce plan in doubt as rockets barrage Israel

/ Source: The Associated Press

The militant Islamic Jihad group in Gaza fired more than a dozen rockets at southern Israel early Thursday after Israeli undercover forces killed one of its West Bank leaders.

The new violence highlighted the fragility of efforts to move Israel and Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers toward an informal truce.

The Islamic Jihad commander, Mohammed Shehadeh, and three other gunmen killed by Israel were buried Thursday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Shehadeh's body was wrapped in a Hezbollah flag, a sign of the growing influence of the Iranian-backed Lebanese guerrilla group among Palestinian militants.

A dozen rockets and three mortars were fired late Wednesday and early Thursday, Israeli security forces said. Two rockets struck a warehouse and soccer stadium in the rocket-weary Israeli town of Sderot, but no one was injured. Israeli aircraft struck a loaded rocket launcher early Thursday, but no Palestinian injuries were reported.

Dead leader 'planned bombings'
The rocket barrage from Gaza was practically a given after Israeli undercover forces opened fire on the car carrying Shehadeh. The Israeli military said the Islamic Jihad commander planned suicide bombings that killed dozens of Israelis.

Militant groups in Gaza have claimed the right to retaliate for Israeli operations in the West Bank, and Islamic Jihad claimed it fired 16 rockets and 10 mortars at southern Israel early Thursday.

Israel held Hamas responsible for the attacks because it controls the Gaza Strip.

"When another group takes responsibility for a rocket launch, they are subcontracting out for Hamas," government spokesman Mark Regev said. "No one could be firing rockets from Gaza without the support of Hamas."

Regev had no comment on an Army Radio report that Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was due in Israel next week to try to advance truce efforts. Israel has publicly denied that any informal cease-fire was taking shape, though officials have privately acknowledged that Egyptian-brokered attempts were under way.

On Thursday, former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said Hamas had to be toppled before rocket fire would stop.

"Israel will not exist side by side with this Iranian entity 3 kilometers (2 miles) from Sderot and 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Ashkelon," Sneh told Army Radio. "There can be no solution without a diplomatic agreement, and there can be no solution without the military wiping out Hamas."

Hamas plea for calm
The latest spiral of violence began just hours after Hamas' prime minister in Gaza called for a period of calm with Israel, laying out conditions that would imply limited international acceptance of Islamic militant rule in Gaza.

The offer by Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh had come amid growing signs that Israel and Hamas were moving closer toward a cease-fire, including an ebb in fighting after clashes in late February and early March killed more than 120 people, nearly all of them Palestinians. The crux of the deal would be the deployment of officers loyal to Hamas' political rival, moderate President Mahmoud Abbas, at Gaza's crossings with Israel and Egypt.

In a speech at Gaza City's Islamic University, Haniyeh demanded an end to Israeli military activity in Palestinian territories, a lifting of Israeli economic sanctions on Gaza and the opening of the territory's borders, which have been sealed since Hamas seized control of the area last June.

"We are talking about a mutual comprehensive calm, which means that the enemy must fulfill its obligations," Haniyeh said.. "The Israelis must stop the aggression ... including assassinations and invasions, end the sanctions and open the borders."

Haniyeh also said "all of the factions are involved," signaling that Hamas has the support of smaller militant groups that have often scuttled cease-fire attempts in the past.

But he spoke before the Israeli raid in Bethlehem -- and it was clear from his speech that his conditions for a truce include a halt to Israeli military operations in the West Bank as well as Gaza.

"We are not going to divide Gaza and isolate Gaza from the rest of the land of Palestine," he said. "Gaza and the West Bank are part of the Palestinian homeland."

Israel has warned repeatedly that Hamas would use any lull to rearm.

"We are not in a situation of a (truce) arrangement here," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said during a tour of the Gaza border on Wednesday. "We are in the midst of operations aimed at stopping rocket fire," he added. "There is no change in what we're doing. What awaits us here is more operations."

Seminary gunman buried
In related news, a Palestinian gunman who killed eight students at a Jerusalem seminary last week was buried late Wednesday, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

Police had held the body of Alaa Abu Dheim until his family agreed to hold a low-key funeral without media coverage, fearing a mass funeral could spiral into a riot by militant supporters. The burial took place without incident, in the presence of a small number of relatives, Rosenfeld said.

Abu Dheim, a 25-year-old resident of east Jerusalem, was shot dead at the scene of the attack by an off-duty army officer living nearby. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Israeli officials suspect Hamas or Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas might have been behind it