Israel Steps Up Airstrikes on Militants in Gaza

The increase in violence in the Gaza Strip comes after President Bush and other U.S. officials visited the region to push for progress in peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

On Thursday, an Israeli airstrike hit a car in Beit Lahya in northern Gaza, killing three Palestinian militants, according to Palestinian security sources and witnesses, reported CNN.

Palestinian militants had fired more than a dozen rockets from Gaza into Israel, one of which hit a house in the town of Sderot, the Israel Defense Forces announced. No one was seriously injured.

Thursday’s exchange of fire came two days after an Israeli raid in Gaza City killed 19 Palestinians, including the son of senior Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar, the Associated Press reported. Hamas said it responded by firing 15 rockets into Israel, mostly in or around Sderot.

On Wednesday, a missile intended for a car carrying militants struck another vehicle, killing three members of a family. An Israeli military spokeswoman said the military regrets the loss of innocent life but stressed that militants put civilians at risk by operating in populated areas of Gaza, CNN reported.

Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu called the strike “a new crime,” saying Israel was “killing more and more of our innocent people and our freedom fighters,” quoted the AP.

Another airstrike that day hit a car transporting weapons, according to the Israeli army, killing two people.

The violence appears to be uniting Palestinians against Israel while peace talks have resumed for the first time in seven years. Government offices in the West Bank closed on Wednesday for a three-day mourning period over the Palestinian deaths. Hamas called for a similar mourning period in Gaza.

The peace talks are starting to take effect on the Israeli government. Avigdor Lieberman, head of the hawkish Yisrael Beitenu Party, resigned from the government on Wednesday, the AP reported.

Without Lieberman’s opposition to turning over territory to the Palestinians, Olmert could proceed more quickly in the peace talks. Olmert and Abbas have pledged to try to reach a peace treaty before President Bush leaves office next year.