Israeli warplanes sent missiles slamming into a car carrying Hamas militants and a load of weapons before dawn yesterday, then demolished arms factories belonging to two Palestinian militant groups, the army said, in a widening of reprisals against Gaza rocket squads.
The sixth straight day of airstrikes against groups that fire rockets at Israeli border communities came as an uneasy truce between warring Palestinian factions set in.
Gunmen armed with rifles, grenades and explosives climbed down from rooftop positions on Saturday, and dozens of hostages kidnapped in a week of fighting between the Islamic militant Hamas and Fatah gunmen were released early yesterday.
The respite allowed battle-weary residents to venture forth from their homes for the first time in days to buy groceries, or to return to homes abandoned during the clashes.
Other recent truces have been short-lived but Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said he expected this one to stick because of Israel's military action.
"No one would accept to fight one another while the Israelis are shelling Gaza," he said.
Israel has carried out 21 airstrikes against Gaza since Tuesday, the army said. During this time, more than 120 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, including three that landed early yesterday, the army said. One of the three hit an empty home.
The rocket attacks and airstrikes have destroyed a 6-month-old truce between Israel and Gaza militants. The infighting has threatened the survival of a fragile governing alliance between Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, and Fatah, whose moderate leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, hopes to revive peacemaking with the Jewish state.
Three people, including at least one Hamas militant, died yesterday in the airstrike on the car in Gaza City, bringing to 27 the number of Palestinians killed in the latest round of air attacks. The vehicle burst into a ball of flame, witnesses said, and the army attributed that to the weapons inside.
Mohammed Madhoun said aircraft mistakenly targeted his stereo and video store in the northern town of Beit Lahia for a weapons workshop, destroying it. A storefront next door, empty for the past year, had been a metal workshop, Madhoun said. The army stood by its claim that the site was a Hamas weapons factory.
For the first time since the airstrikes began, Israel targeted weapons operations belonging to Islamic Jihad, a smaller militant group that has also been involved in rocket attacks on Israel. The army explained that it would go after all rocket operations, including Islamic Jihad's.
On Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz vowed to keep going after Hamas militants, warning them to be "very afraid."
Still, Peretz said, time was not ripe for a major Israeli ground offensive in Gaza. Israeli Cabinet ministers are to discuss how to proceed against the rocket squads at a meeting yesterday.
The air attacks, backed by tank fire, have driven Hamas fighters out of their bases, prompting the militant group to accuse Israel and Fatah of colluding against it.
Clashes between Hamas and Fatah have killed 53 Palestinians over the past week. Abbas' decision to station thousands of loyalist security forces on the streets of lawless Gaza City without consulting Hamas touched off the violence.
Four previous ceasefire agreements collapsed, but on Saturday, the two sides tried again.
The truce got off to a shaky start, with a gunbattle erupting outside the home of a senior Fatah official in Gaza City. Shortly after, each faction released a few hostages -- but only after shooting them in the legs, factions said.
Still, as word of the ceasefire spread, and enforcement teams went out on the streets, fighters began to comply -- something they had not done with the previous truces. They also began knocking down roadblocks set up to identify rival fighters.
Factions later accused each other of returning to rooftops, but there were no reports of renewed clashes.