Israel strikes back after deadly rocket

15Jan

International talks on the Middle East set for Friday were lent a fresh sense of urgency Friday after Israeli warplanes replied with airstrikes to a fatal rocket attack launched from the Gaza Strip.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office meanwhile said late Thursday that he had spoken by phone to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Palestinian security officials and eyewitnesses said that Israeli aicraft hit three targets across the coastal strip in the early hours of Friday, but there were no reports of injuries.

A Palestinian group, the Al-Qaeda-inspired Ansar al-Sunna Brigade, claimed responsibility for Thursday’s fatal rocket attack, which killed a Thai labourer working near the Gaza border.

The group linked it to clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli police in Jerusalem earlier this week.

A second rocket slammed into open ground elsewhere in southern Israel after dark, causing no casualties, a military spokesman said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the killing.

“All such acts of terror and violence against civilians are totally unacceptable and contrary to international law,” his office said.

Netanyahu’s office said that in his conversation with Clinton he had raised “mutual confidence-building measures” that could be carried out by Israel and the Palestinians.

But the statement gave no details, nor did it say if he had answered US complaints about Israeli settlements in east Jerusalem.

An Israeli police spokesman, meanwhile, said thousands of officers were being kept on alert in case of more unrest on Friday.

Israeli police are to bar men aged under 50 from attending weekly prayers at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound.

Thursday’s rocket attack came as EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton was visiting the impoverished coastal strip, which is still struggling with the aftermath of the 22-day offensive Israel launched in December 2008 in a bid to halt rocket fire.

“I’m extremely shocked by the rocket attack,” Ashton told journalists.

She also made a plea for Palestinian-Israeli talks to get under way “as quickly as we can.”

She later flew to Moscow for Friday’s meeting of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet, which will also be attended by Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the UN chief.

Ban is to visit the Middle East, including Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, this weekend.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who brokered a now uncertain deal for indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians on a previous visit, is due back in the region on Sunday, according to one senior Palestinian official.

He is expected to meet Netanyahu before the Israeli premier leaves on a US visit.

Mitchell’s return, initially scheduled for last Tuesday, was postponed when a major row blew up between Washington and the Jewish state over Israel’s announcement of 1,600 new settler homes to be built in annexed east Jerusalem.

What particularly infuriated the Washington was the timing of the announcement, which came as Vice President Joe Biden was in Jerusalem promoting the talks.

President Barack Obama, however, has insisted that there is no crisis.

“We and the Israeli people have a special bond that’s not going to go away,” he said in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday night.

But the prospects for a swift resumption of peace negotiations, halted when Israel launched its devastating Gaza offensive in December 2008, appear dim.

The increased diplomatic activity comes at a time of heightened religious and political tension that saw dozens injured in clashes between Palestinians and police in east Jerusalem on Tuesday.

An already charged atmosphere intensified over the opening this week of a rebuilt 17th-century synagogue in the Jewish quarter of the Old City, a few hundred metres (yards) from the Al-Aqsa mosque compound.

The Ansar al-Sunna Brigade said Thursday’s rocket attack was “an answer to Zionist aggression against the Al-Aqsa mosque and holy sites and our people” in the Holy City.

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