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Monday, March 19, 2007

Hamas shoots Israeli, fires mortar bombs despite truce

GAZA, March 19 (Reuters) - The armed wing of Hamas said it carried out its first attacks on Monday against Israel since a shaky November truce in the Gaza Strip, shooting a utility worker near the border and firing two mortar bombs at soldiers.

Hamas's Qassam Brigades said the shooting attack, which seriously injured the Israeli worker, was in response to Israeli military operations in the occupied West Bank, which is not covered by the four-month-old truce. No soldiers were injured.

The group said attacks against Israel would continue.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office called the shooting a "terror" attack.

The Israeli electricity company employee was working near the Karni commercial crossing between Israel and Gaza when he was shot, Israeli rescue services said.

"The Qassam Brigades announced its responsibility for shooting a Zionist (Israeli) and firing two mortar bombs against a gathering of Zionist soldiers near Karni crossing," the statement by Hamas's armed wing said. "Our strikes against the enemy will continue."

The attack occurred two days after Hamas Islamists formed a unity government with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction.

It was the first attack claimed by Hamas's armed wing since the November truce, which it had upheld.

Other groups, such as Islamic Jihad, stayed out of the truce and continued to fire makeshift rockets into Israel from Gaza.

An explosion on Monday ripped through an Islamic Jihad member's house near Gaza City, killing him and wounding at least nine people, hospital workers and residents said.

It was not immediately clear what caused the explosion.

Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas's armed wing, defended the Karni shooting attack as a natural response to Israeli violations.

"This is not a violation of calm. The enemy has been violating calm day and night in the West Bank and in Gaza and we had said calm was conditional," Ubaida said.

He added that the group was weighing whether to resume firing rockets against Israel.

Israeli intelligence officials say Hamas was taking advantage of the break in fighting to build up its forces and smuggle in an arsenal of rockets that could penetrate deep into Israeli territory.

Olmert has vowed to boycott the new Palestinian government in its entirety, including non-Hamas ministers, saying its platform does not meet international demands to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept interim peace deals.

"This is precisely the type of terror that the new Palestinian government steadfastly refuses to condemn, thus rejecting a principle condition placed upon it by the international community," said David Baker, an Olmert spokesman.

A year-old diplomatic boycott of the Palestinian government continued to splinter on Monday when Norway's deputy foreign minister met Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas in Gaza.

Italy's foreign minister later called Haniyeh in a show of support, Haniyeh's office said.

"We hope that this siege will collapse step by step," said Mustafa al-Barghouthi, the new Palestinian Information minister.

The unity government says it will "respect" previous interim peace agreements with Israel. Its platform does not recognise Israel and asserts that Palestinian resistance in "all its forms" is a legitimate right.

While the United States said it would boycott the new Palestinian government, it did not rule out unofficial talks with non-Hamas ministers.

Britain plans to allow diplomatic contacts with non-Hamas ministers, and the United Nations is expected to follow suit. (Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah)
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