Israel goes on with offensive on Islamic militants

Israeli aircraft unleashed missiles at targets in the Gaza Strip early Wednesday and troops fired artillery shells into the area for the first time, pushing forward with an offensive despite a pledge by Islamic militants to halt their recent rocket attacks against Israel.

Military officials said there were no immediate plans to stop the ongoing campaign of airstrikes and arrest raids, launched last weekend following a series of rocket strikes from the Gaza Strip.

The army said its airstrikes Wednesday targeted three buildings used for terror activity by Palestinian militants, and an access route in northern Gaza used by militants to fire rockets.

The airstrikes knocked out power in Gaza City, plunging most of the city into darkness. Palestinian security officials said the buildings suffered substantial damage, and a bridge in northern Gaza was destroyed, but there were no injuries.

In and around the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Hebron, Israeli troops arrested 24 wanted members of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups and sealed offices belonging to both organizations, the military said, adding that soldiers also sealed the groups' offices in Bethlehem, Qalqiliya and Tulkarem .

The army has arrested about 400 suspected militants in the West Bank in recent days.

Israel says the strong reaction is necessary to show that new rules are in place following its recent withdrawal from Gaza and that attacks from the area won't be tolerated.

"Terrorism must be rooted out," Vice Premier Shimon Peres told Israel Radio Wednesday.

Islamic Jihad's leader, Mohammed al-Hindi, in his turn announced the stop in rocket fire after an emergency meeting late Tuesday of Palestinian militant and political groups. The larger Hamas militant group declared an end to rocket attacks earlier this week.

At Tuesday's meeting, the various Palestinian factions, including Hamas and the ruling Fatah movement, also renewed a commitment to a seven-month-old cease-fire, though they also said they reserve the right to retaliate for perceived Israeli truce violations.

Israeli security officials said they wanted to see concrete results on the ground before ending the operation. As the militants were meeting, a rocket landed in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, causing no damage or injuries. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz pledged Tuesday to step up pressure on the militants, saying a ground invasion into Gaza is possible as a last resort. He spoke as he toured an Israeli artillery battery near Gaza.

"This battery ... is not meant to be decoration. It is operational, within range and it will respond against every firing of a Qassam in real time, and that is to deter," he said.

Late Tuesday, the army fired live artillery shells into northern Gaza for the first time in what it said was a response to Palestinian rocket attacks. The shells landed in an open area that the army said was used to fire rockets. No casualties were reported.

The new violence started after a blast Friday at a Hamas rally in Gaza's Jebaliya refugee camp killed 21 people, including a 7-year-old boy who died of his wounds Tuesday, the AP reports.

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