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Israel Launches Attacks, Killing 18 Palestinians

However, Palestinian rocket fire continued throughout the day, lightly wounding two people. Israeli police said two rockets reached Ashkelon, a large city about 12 miles north of Gaza.

“We are at the height of the battle,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in Tokyo, where he met U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before her visit next week to Israel. “We will reach out for the terrorists and we will attack and we will try to stop them.”

The latest wave of violence began Wednesday when an Israeli air strike killed five Hamas militants traveling in a van. Hamas retaliated by firing more than 40 rockets into Israel, one of which killed a man in the southern town of Sderot. It was the first fatal rocket attack since May.

An Israeli helicopter attack targeted a police roadblock about 150 yards from the home of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City. One person was killed and four people were wounded, officials said.

Haniyeh, who has been in hiding, wasn’t believed to be in the area. In a statement earlier Thursday, Haniyeh said Israel’s ongoing attacks would “not weaken the steadfastness and the determination of the Palestinian people.”

On Thursday, Israel carried out at least 10 airstrikes in northern and central Gaza, Palestinians told the Associated Press. The army said it was targeting “militants and rocket-launcher squads.”

Thursday’s fighting raised the death toll in two days of fighting to 29 Palestinians. Seven children were among the dead, including the five boys, aged 8 to 14. Ahmed Dardouna, a family member, told the AP that four of the boys were related — two were brothers and the other two were their cousins.

The fifth boy, a 12-year-old neighbor, died later from his wounds, hospital officials said.

“These stupid missiles being launched — firecrackers, but at the end they have killed Israeli civilians — we condemn this, clearly, openly, straightforwardly,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki said. “But at the same time, we condemn all the Israeli incursions into Gaza, killing Palestinian civilians, destroying their houses, preventing them from having a normal life.”

Rice was asked whether she urged Olmert not to use disproportionate force in responding to the rockets.

“I think that’s not a good way to address this issue. The issue is that the attacks — rocket attacks — need to stop,” Rice told reporters after the meeting.

“We have to remember that the Hamas activities there are responsible for what has happened in Gaza — the illegal coup that they led against the legitimate institutions of the Palestinian Authority,” Rice said, according to news agencies. “It is very clear where this started.”

Hamas seized control of Gaza last year from the forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel has been holding peace talks with Abbas’ government in the West Bank, while battling Hamas in Gaza.

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