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Israel and Gaza militants exchange fire, 5 killed
Gaza militants rocket southern Israel after Islamic Jihad militants killed in airstrike
By The Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) ' Israeli aircraft struck at Palestinian militants on Saturday, killing five, while militants responded with a volley of rockets which injured several Israeli civilians, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

Exchanges of fire are common between the Palestinian-controlled Gaza strip and southern Israel, but this is the worst one in months.

An Israeli military spokesman said the militants from the Islamic Jihad group in Gaza were hit as they were preparing to launch more rockets at Israel.



He said that the cell that was targeted was the same as had fired rockets into southern Israel on Wednesday night. No Israelis were injured in that attack.

The military "will not tolerate any attempt to harm Israeli civilians," the spokesman said. He spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with military protocols.

Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Adham Abu Salmia confirmed that five men were killed and another 11 injured in an explosion inside a militant training site in the southern part of the coastal territory.

After the airstrike, militants in Gaza fired over 10 rockets at southern Israel, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the barrage.

One of the rockets exploded outside an apartment building in the southern city of Ashdod, injuring at least one person, Israel's rescue service said. Israeli television showed about a dozen cars in flames outside the building.

Another person sustained shrapnel wounds in the nearby town of Gan Yavneh and others in the Ashdod region were treated for shock, the Israeli military spokesman said.

Israel's Channel 2 television reported that one rocket hid a school, causing massive damage. No one was hurt because the school was closed for the Jewish Sabbath, Ashdod Mayor Yehiel Lasri said.

Islamic Jihad took responsibility for firing the rockets in a text message to reporters, and released photos of the rockets being launched from the backs of pickup trucks. The group said this is the first time they are using this system as opposed to firing them from launchers on the ground.

Islamic Jihad is one of the militant groups in Gaza that frequently fires rockets into southern Israel, prompting Israeli reprisal strikes.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Abu Ahmed had earlier confirmed that one of its local field commanders, Ahmed Sheikh Khalil, was killed. He said Khalil was one of the group's chief bomb makers. "Today it was a great loss for us in the Islamic Jihad," he said. "The size of our retaliation will equal our loss," it said in a text message sent to reporters.

"Our response shall be in the depths of the Zionist entity," it said in reference to the Israeli heartland.

The Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad took responsibility for multiple suicide bombings and shooting attacks against civilians in Israel during the second Palestinian intifadah, or uprising, in the first half of the last decade.

Israel and Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, blamed each other for the flare up in violence Saturday.

"The Hamas terror organization is solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip," the Israeli military said.

Israel as a matter of policy holds Hamas liable for violence perpetrated by any of the different armed groups in the coastal territory.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum meanwhile said Israel is "fully responsible for all the results of this dangerous escalation."

In the winter of 2008, Israel launched a broad military offensive inside Gaza aimed at stopping almost daily Palestinian rocket fire at Israeli communities.

Since then, violence has continued sporadically along the border and Palestinians continue to launch mortars and rockets at Israel, but to a much lesser degree.

On Wednesday, militants fired a long-range Katyusha rocket that exploded near Ashdod in the south of the country.

Sirens also went off in the central Israeli city of Rehovot, which unlike many southern Israeli cities is not accustomed to rocket fire, causing panic. The Israeli military said the alarm went off because the rocket exploded in an area between the two cities.

___

Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza contributed to this report.


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