Ceasefire ignored as Hamas fires dozens of mortars at Gaza settlements
The Palestinian leadership reacted furiously after the radical Islamic group Hamas defied a new ceasefire agreement by unleashing a volley of mortars at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
Israel responded by cancelling a meeting to discuss the implementation of the agreements reached at this week's landmark summit between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and new Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.
The firing of more than 30 mortar shells and rockets came despite the presence of thousands of Palestinian security forces in Gaza with specific instructions to prevent such attacks.
With warnings from Israel ringing in his ear that the firing constituted a first real test of his commitment to the ceasefire, Abbas told the forces to stand up to their responsibilities.
"President Abbas has issued firm instructions to the security services to fully assume their responsibilities in the face of any violations," a statement from his office said.
"The Palestinian leadership repeats its commitment to calm agreed to with the Palestinian factions and the arrangements of the Sharm el-Sheikh summit," it added.
Abbas's prime minister Ahmed Qorei said that the attacks were unacceptable and also promised firm action.
"We cannot accept what has happened in Gaza. Consultations are being held to take necessary measures to put an end to this anomaly," he said.
At the same time, he urged Israel to refrain from "any act which could provoke or prompt ripostes" from the militants.
No one was injured in the attacks which began at around 3:00 am. An Israeli army spokeswoman said 22 mortars landed in the main Gush Katif settlement bloc in southern Gaza over a four-hour period as well as one makeshift Qassam rocket, named after Hamas's armed wing.
After a lull of several hours, three more mortars landed in the nearby Morag settlement, again without causing injuries.
An anti-tank shell was also fired at an Israeli army position near the settlement of Neve Dekalim, in the same area, without causing any injuries.
The Islamists are meant to be observing a period of calm but a statement by the Ezzedin al-Qassam Brigades said the shelling was its "response to the Zionist crimes which are continuing and have cost the lives of Fathi Abu Jazar and Hassan al-Alami".
Alami died on Wednesday in an explosion near his home in the Khan Yunis area of southern Gaza whose cause was unknown, with the Israeli army denying any involvement.
Abu Jazar died overnight after a shooting incident on Wednesday in the Rafah region, also in southern Gaza. An Israeli military source said a number of suspected militants had been seen approaching a closed zone but said troops had responded by firing warning shots into the air "and did not identify a hit."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit with Abbas on Tuesday that his armed forces "will cease all its military activity against all Palestinians anywhere."
Abbas also declared an end to all attacks on Israelis in a bid to draw a line under the four-year armed Palestinian uprising which has so far claimed more than 4,700 lives.
He still however has to persuade the likes of Hamas to translate their temporary "cooling down" period into a permanent truce declaration.
Israeli cabinet minister Matan Vilnai said the mortar firing represented the first litmus test of the Palestinian leadership's commitment to the ceasefire.
"It is extremely serious. It is a real test for the Palestinian leadership, which can deal with it," he said.
"Within a short period we must see an operation by them that stops such things," added the minister without portfolio.
Sources close to Abbas said he was likely to travel to the militants' Gaza stronghold over the weekend when he will try to sell the ceasefire agreement.
The militants have made a ceasefire conditional on both an end to Israeli military activity in the occupied territories and the release of prisoners.
So far Israel has only agreed to free about 900 of the estimated 8,000 Palestinians behind bars, none of whom have been convicted of taking part in deadly attacks.
However Sharon, in an interview with Thursday's Haaretz daily, said that he understood the "supreme importance" for the Palestinians that long-term prisoners be freed even if they have "blood on their hands" and indicated that they could be freed if the Gaza pullout proceeds smoothly.