Israeli aircraft attacked suspected weapons factories throughout the Gaza Strip early yesterday, pushing forward with an offensive against Palestinian militants despite a pledge by a top Hamas leader to halt rocket fire against Israel.
The airstrikes knocked out power to the eastern part of Gaza City and caused damage to several buildings, but no injuries were reported. Israeli security officials said they would wait to see whether the Palestinian attacks would in fact halt before calling off the military strike Israel launched over the weekend.
The fighting came ahead of a key vote yesterday in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party. The party's decision on when to hold a primary election is widely seen as a test of Sharon's leadership.
Sharon, under fire from hard-liners in the party because of the recent withdrawal from Gaza, walked out of a stormy Likud meeting Sunday night without delivering his prepared speech after a problem with the sound system prevented him from speaking. Some Likud officials said the system was sabotaged by Sharon's opponents.
Israel, which completed its withdrawal from Gaza two weeks ago, launched its offensive over the weekend following a rocket barrage from the coastal territory into nearby Israeli towns.
It has carried out a series of airstrikes, killing four militants and destroying several weapons facilities, and arrested more than 200 Palestinians. The fighting has destroyed the atmosphere of goodwill left over from the Gaza pullout and increased already intense pressure on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to confront militants.
The attacks yesterday struck targets around Gaza City as well as the southern towns of Rafah and Khan Younis. The army said its targets included an access road leading to a rocket-launching site in northern Gaza, and weapons-manufacturing factories and storage facilities belonging to various militant groups.
The Gaza City airstrike, which knocked out power in part of the city, destroyed a metal workshop that the army said was used by Hamas to make weapons. Factory owner Ali Shaaban said it was the fourth time the workshop had been targeted. Shaaban said he produced engine parts for vehicles and generators, not weapons.
Israel continued with its air campaign despite a call by Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar to end the group's rocket attacks. Zahar spoke at a news conference late Sunday, hours after a pinpoint Israeli airstrike killed a top commander in the Islamic Jihad militant group.
Zahar said Hamas remained committed to a seven-month-old cease-fire and he wanted to prevent further Israeli attacks.
"We call on our military groups to stop their operations against the enemy from the Gaza Strip," he said. Zahar also renewed a pledge to end Hamas' military-style parades celebrating the Israeli withdrawal.
The recent violence erupted following an explosion at a Hamas parade last Friday that killed 20 people in a Gaza refugee camp.
Hamas accused Israel of setting off the explosion. But Palestinian Authority officials said investigators determined the blast was caused by the mishandling of explosives. Israel, which routinely claims responsibility for attacks on militants, denied involvement.
Following the explosion, Hamas militants fired nearly 40 rockets into southern Israel, slightly wounding six people and sparking the Israeli offensive. Officials said the offensive would continue until the rocket fire ends.