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Israelis, Palestinians exchange rocket fire; 11 dead

Israelis are seen through a burned car after a rocket fired from Gaza landed in Ashdod October 29, 2011. Israel's air force bombed an Islamic Jihad base in the southern Gaza Strip on Saturday, killing a commander and four munitions experts from the Palestinian faction, officials on both sides said.

Nir Elias/Reuters/Nir Elias/Reuters

Israel sent a deadly message to Palestinian militant groups in Gaza this weekend as at least 10 Palestinians and one Israeli were killed in an exchange of missile fire Saturday and Sunday.

Israeli actions were directed at Islamic Jihad and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), both of which were attacked as they reportedly prepared to launch rockets against Israel. These smaller resistance groups, fortified by weapons apparently smuggled into Gaza from Libya, have grown increasingly militant of late, disappointed by Hamas's apparent willingness to co-operate with Israel.

Israel's attacks have cast Hamas, which governs Gaza, in an awkward role familiar to the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank – that of enforcing non-violence in the territory it controls for the benefit of Israel.

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By late Sunday night, a ceasefire by all parties negotiated by Egypt appeared to be holding, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made it clear that ceasefire or not, Israel wouldn't hesitate to strike again.

"There is no ceasefire," Mr. Netanyahu told his cabinet colleagues as they gathered in the northern Israeli town of Safed for their Sunday meeting. "We will prevent any attempt to shoot at Israel, and will strike at anybody who nevertheless succeeds," the Prime Minister said.

Mr. Netanyahu explained that Israel's defence policy is based on two principles: "Kill or be killed" and "He who harms you should bear the blood on his head."

The sequence of events began as early as Wednesday night when a Grad rocket launched by Islamic Jihad landed in an area just south of Tel Aviv. While no one was hurt, it was the furthest any missile had been fired from the Gaza Strip and set off alarms in Israeli Defence headquarters.

Israel waited until Saturday morning before retaliating, choosing a meeting of a high-ranking Islamic Jihad military commander and several of his rocket men as a target. The commander, Ahmed Sheikh Khalil, was said by an Israel Defence Forces spokesman to have been associated with the launch of Wednesday's rocket. Commander Khalil and four others were reported killed by missiles fired by two Israeli fighter jets.

Islamic Jihad responded with fury, firing some 20 missiles into southern Israel. A 56-year-old Israeli father of four was killed Saturday night from shrapnel from a rocket that landed in Ashkelon, the major Israeli municipality nearest to Gaza. The man had apparently just left has car to take refuge in a bomb shelter when the missile landed.

Israeli jets struck again Saturday night, killing at least four other members of Islamic Jihad as they were said to be preparing to launch a rocket from the Rafah area.

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Islamic Jihad rockets continued to fall Sunday morning even as Egypt attempted to negotiate a ceasefire between the two sides. The rockets fell silent by midmorning as the ceasefire appeared to hold, for a few hours at least.

Israel then struck again Sunday afternoon, this time at two members of the DFLP who were said to be preparing to launch a rocket. One of the men was killed, the other badly wounded.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the rocket fire from Gaza and urged "maximum Israeli restraint" in the wake of the attacks, his spokesman said in a statement on Sunday.

Through it all this weekend, Hamas, which had seized power in Gaza from Mr. Abbas's PA forces in 2007, was silent.

Groups such as Islamic Jihad want to continue to resist Israel's control of Gaza's border crossings and to remind people that Hamas is not the only resistance movement in Gaza. Islamic Jihad is increasingly becoming allied with extremist Salafi groups that fault Hamas for not waging all-out war against Israel.

Hamas tolerates some of these groups' militant actions, both as a means of letting off steam and as a way to show Israel that the campaign to open Gaza's border crossings is far from over.

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At the same time, however, Hamas does not want anything to affect an upcoming Israeli release of 550 Palestinian prisoners. The release is the second stage of a prisoner exchange agreement between Israel and Hamas that included the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Hamas also is trying to develop a closer relationship with Egypt, perhaps even moving its headquarters to Cairo from Damascus. But Egypt, like Israel, expects Hamas to keep order in Gaza, and that includes reining in other militant groups.

It is not an easy situation for Hamas to deal with, particularly since it released Sergeant Shalit, whose presence had conferred on the Islamist group a kind of protection. It was widely believed in Gaza that as long as Sgt. Shalit was held hostage, Israel would not assassinate any senior Hamas leaders, lest Hamas lynch the Israeli soldier in return.

As all these events were unfolding on Saturday and Sunday, no Hamas leader could be found in the usual Gaza haunts. All had gone to ground, wary of a possible Israeli strike against them.

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