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As Israel Defends Strikes, Additional Civilians Killed

In the face of international criticism over civilian deaths, Israel is defending its strikes against Islamic militants.

On Tuesday Israel killed at least nine Palestinians, most of them civilians, in an air strike.

The target was Hamoud Wadiya, Islamic Jihad’s main rocket launcher, who was killed along with at least one other Islamic Jihad member en route to a rocket attack, the Israeli military said. A rocket in the terrorists’ vehicle detonated by the strike, along with shrapnel from one of the Israeli missiles, killed at least seven Palestinian bystanders.

The strike came as Israeli officials were working to convince the world that their country had not been responsible for the deaths of Palestinian civilians killed in an explosion on a Gaza beach.

Israel initially apologized for the deaths of the civilians, but shortly afterward it launched an investigation. The investigation concluded Tuesday — based on analysis of shrapnel found in Palestinian victims who were treated at an Israeli hospital — that the blast was caused by mines Palestinians had buried on the beach to deter an Israeli invasion.

The secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, questioned reports that a Palestinian mine was behind the killings. “To find a mine on the beach is rather odd,” the U.N. secretary-general said Tuesday.

An on-site investigation by Human Rights Watch concluded that an Israeli shell fired that day caused the deaths. Palestinian officials have called for a U.N. investigation. Israeli officials say they would cooperate with such a probe.

Hamas had called off a 16-month cease-fire after the beach deaths. That stance did not change after the Israeli investigation, which Hamas spokesmen called an Israeli attempt to avoid responsibility.

Hamas generally has observed the truce but is believed to have encouraged proxies to continue attacks.

Early this week, Israeli army officials recommended targeting Hamas political leaders believed to be behind weekend attacks against Israel that injured an Israeli man.

Peretz rejected that recommendation, but warned that Israel would escalate its response in Gaza if Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel continued. There were an estimated 30 such barrages over the weekend.

On Wednesday Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian gunman during a raid of the West Bank city of Jenin. During the raid, Mohammed al-Wash, 26, a member of Tanzim, the terrorist arm of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, was killed and 13 other wanted Palestinians were injured.

Even as the situation deteriorated, a top adviser to the prime minister of the Hamas-led government said that the militant group might offer a 50- to 60-year truce if Israel withdraws to its pre-1967 borders. But Hamas still would not recognize Israel, Ahmed Yusef, political adviser to P.A. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, told Ha’aretz. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made clear that Israel has no intentions of withdrawing to the pre-1967 borders, which he says are indefensible.

Yusef also said suicide bombings do not serve the Hamas government’s interests, despite a call from the terrorist group’s military wing to end a cease-fire because of increasing violence in Gaza.

Peretz told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Wednesday that Hamas halted Qassam rocket fire on Israel, apparently due to the threat of a wide-scale Israel Defense Forces operation. But Wednesday afternoon, a Qassam rocket landed in the western Negev. It was not immediately clear which Palestinian group was behind the attack. Peretz noted that Israel’s message on the matter had been relayed, openly and through secret channels, and had reached the senior echelons of the Hamas government.

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