Israel threatens Hamas as Sderot mourns

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 23-May-07 | Author: Conal Urquhart| Source: Guardian (UK)

Mourners at the funeral of Shirel Friedman, killed by a rocket fired from the Gaza strip.

· Not even political leaders immune, warns minister
· Israeli town empties after Gaza rocket kills woman

The Israeli government yesterday said it would consider assassinating the Palestinian prime minister as the town of Sderot emptied following the first death from a Qassam rocket in six months.

Ephraim Sneh, the deputy defence minister, said Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian prime minister, was not immune from Israeli reprisals for the rocket fire which has forced thousands of Israeli residents close to the Gaza border to flee.

Mr Sneh described the Hamas leadership as "terrorists in suits" and told the Associated Press: "We don't care if he's a ringleader, a perpetrator of rocket attacks or if he is one of the political leaders. No one has immunity."

Hamas officials threatened an escalation in violence if their leaders were killed while Ahmed Yusef, an adviser to Mr Haniyeh, offered to discuss a truce in the West Bank and Gaza if Israel stopped its "mad attacks".

Shirel Friedman, 32, was buried yesterday in Sderot's cemetery as Israeli jets hit four targets in Gaza and Palestinian militants fired eight rockets, one hitting the outskirts of the city of Ashkelon. There were no serious injuries. Ms Friedman was killed on Monday night when a Qassam rocket landed next to a car in the town centre, destroying it and spraying shrapnel in the vicinity. She was the eleventh person to be killed by a rocket fired from Gaza at Israel in the last three years. Around 50 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli reprisals in the last week.

Thousands of residents of Sderot have already left the town in the past week and at least another thousand left yesterday on buses laid on by the town council and national government.

Many of the people boarding the coaches had no idea where they were going. Others were more choosy, insisting they would go either to a good hotel or a town where they had relatives.

Daniel and Itala Brecanovinsky arrived in Sderot seven months ago from Peru. They said they did not care where they went so long as they could take their two daughters to safety. "We first went through this when we first arrived in November last year. It is much worse this time. We have been scared since the beginning," said Mrs Brecanovinsky.

A bus turned up and some of the soldiers organising the evacuation said, "Hurry up, it's the last one". The destination was Givat Aviva, but few knew where it was. Some held back hoping for something better. A further bus came, but for the same destination.

Alec Chernovsky, 21, got on the last bus. "We have been here for two hours and no one knows what is going on. I just have to go because it's scary here. I don't know when it's going to be safe to come back."

Dima Gimpel, 23, said he was happy to stay after seeing his family off on a coach. "The Qassams are no problem. I am happy to have the house to myself for a bit."

Earlier in the day, the town centre was packed with cars as if everything was normal. A cable television company had sent its employees to distribute pastries and chocolate-flavoured milk and wish Sderot residents happy holidays. Today is the Shavuot Jewish holiday in which Jews celebrate God's delivery of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

At the funeral of the Ms Friedman, residents vented their anger at the mayor, Eli Moyal, who was led away from the graveside by five police officers. On Monday night, crowds stoned the town hall and tried to prevent Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, from leaving after a meeting.

Although Qassam rockets have been falling on Sderot for six years, the majority of houses lack reinforced rooms. In a statement, Ehud Olmert, the prime minister told the residents that the government would reinforce homes but warned, "there is no immediate solution to the Qassams and there is no absolute solution either."