Israel launches airstrikes on Gaza Strip

Attacks come as Palestinians protest over death of prominent prisoner in Israeli jail

A Hamas militant holds a poster of Maysara Abu Hamdiya before a protest in the northern Gaza Strip yesterday. Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters

A Hamas militant holds a poster of Maysara Abu Hamdiya before a protest in the northern Gaza Strip yesterday. Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters


Israeli warplanes struck targets early today in the Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire toward southern Israel, the first air strikes launched by Israel since an informal ceasefire ended eight days of cross-border fighting in November.

An Israeli military statement said its planes targeted "two extensive terror sites" with "accurate hits." Palestinian officials said no one was hurt in the air strikes and no damage was reported in northern Gaza.

Meanwhile, Palestinian militants fired rockets for the second time in less than 24 hours this morning. The rockets landed in an open area, causing no injuries or damage. A rocket fired at southern Israel yesterday evening also landed in an open area.

The airstrikes came as hundreds of Palestinian prisoners staged protests in Israeli jails after the Palestinian leadership accused Israel of deliberately delaying the treatment of a prominent prisoner who died of cancer.

Maysara Abu Hamdiya (64) a retired general in the Palestinian Authority security services, died in a hospital in southern Israel yesterday morning two months after receiving a diagnosis of throat cancer.

Gen Hamdiya was detained by Israel in 2002, at the height of the second Palestinian uprising, and was serving a life term for attempted murder after sending a suicide bomber to a cafe in Jerusalem, Israeli officials said. The bomb failed to detonate.

Gen Hamdiya's death came amid efforts by the Western-backed Palestinian leadership to place the prisoner issue high on the diplomatic agenda, with the Obama administration calling for a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Emotions over the prisoner issue have been running high among the Palestinian public in recent months, leading to protests in support of prisoners on hunger strikes and over the death of a prisoner in February under disputed circumstances.

The Palestinian Authority said Gen Hamdiya had been suffering severe throat pain since August. In the days and weeks leading up to his death, Palestinian representatives blamed Israel for procrastinating in his diagnosis and treatment as they pressed for his early release.

Sivan Weizman, a spokeswoman for the Israel Prison Service, said that Hamdiya had been under medical supervision and that a committee would examine the circumstances of his death, as in all cases of prisoners dying in custody. Ms Weizman added that the prison service had applied to a parole board for an early release for Gen Hamdiya about a week ago, once it was clear that his illness was terminal.

The office of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, said in a statement that it held the Israeli government "fully responsible" for Gen Hamdiya's death, which it said stemmed from a policy of "deliberate medical negligence."

Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the authority, also accused the Israeli prison authorities of a "policy of medical negligence," saying in a statement that the delay in treating Gen Hamdiya "was a primary reason for his martyrdom." He called for international monitoring of the conditions inside Israel's prisons.

With news of Gen Hamdiya's death, Palestinian prisoners in several Israeli jails erupted in anger, banging on cell doors and throwing objects, Ms Weizman said. Tear gas was used to quell unrest in one prison, though calm was restored by the afternoon.

Rioting also broke out in East Jerusalem and in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, Gen Hamdiya's hometown, where many shops closed in protest yesterday and a public hall was opened to receive mourners.

Also yesterday, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired a rocket into southern Israel and Israel carried out an airstrike, its first since a cease-fire that ended eight days of fierce cross-border fighting in November.

An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed there had been a strike in Gaza, Reuters reported, but gave no further details. The Hamas Interior Ministry said that Israeli planes had bombed "an open area in northern Gaza" and that there were no casualties, Reuters said.

The rocket caused no damage or injury but was the latest violation of the cease-fire from the Gaza side. The Israeli military reported two launchings from Gaza earlier yesterday, but those rockets apparently fell short and did not reach Israeli territory.

Several rockets crashed into southern Israel during US president Barack Obama's visit last month, prompting Israel to temporarily close a commercial goods crossing into Gaza and to limit Gaza fishermen to a zone of three nautical miles off the coast. Israel had agreed to extend the zone to six nautical miles under the terms of its Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.