Israel calls for world pressure on Hamas

 
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JERUSALEM, May 22 (Reuters) Israel threatened today to kill Hamas leaders and launch a ground offensive in Gaza unless international pressure was brought on the ruling Islamist group to halt cross-border rocket attacks.

Asked if Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was on Israel's hit-list, Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh said: ''I'll put it like this -- there is no one who is in the circle of commanders and leaders in Hamas who is immune from a strike.'' Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official, said in response in Gaza: ''Any harm to Prime Minister Haniyeh or any Hamas leader would mean a change in the rules of the game and the occupation (Israel) must be ready to pay an unprecedented price.'' Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz, meeting the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, called on the international community to take action immediately to try to persuade Hamas to stop launching the makeshift rockets.

Abu Zuhri said Israel must first stop all its attacks on Palestinians before the group and other factions could consider halting their own strikes.

The Israeli army said about 150 rockets have been fired from Gaza in a week in which Hamas, which had been battling the Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas, turned to attacks against Israel, accusing the Jewish state of aiding its rival.

A woman was killed yesterday in the Israeli town of Sderot, the first fatality in a Palestinian rocket attack since November.

Israeli air strikes over the past week have killed at least 34 Palestinians, medical officials said in Gaza. Militant groups said 23 of the dead were fighters.

''Now this is a test for European diplomacy. It is a test for US diplomacy. It is a test for the diplomacy of the free world. If the rockets do not stop, we will not stop,'' Peretz told reporters, with Solana at his side.

''We have been acting very, very patiently. We have been biting our lip and trying not to get to a situation whereby we have to enter into a wide-scale ground operation,'' he said.

An Israeli political source, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorised to speak with the media, said Peretz was pressing for international action now, before Israel was forced to take ''stronger action on the ground'' in Gaza.

WESTERN PRESSURE Hamas, which formed a unity government with Fatah in March, has lobbied for Western support while withstanding international pressure to recognise Israel and renounce violence, terms for a renewal of direct aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas's armed wing said it fired two rockets at Sderot early today.

In the latest Israeli attack, an aircraft fired two missiles at a post that Hamas's Executive Force had evacuated in the northern Gaza Strip, slightly wounding a passerby, Hamas and local residents said.

Earlier, an Israeli aircraft destroyed a Gaza metal foundry, which the military said produced weapons, and a building that it described as a ''command centre'' used by militants. There were no reports of casualties.

Abbas planned to go to Gaza later today to speak to leaders about maintaining law and order after weeks of fighting between his Fatah faction and Hamas, and perhaps about resuming a Gaza truce with Israel, Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr said.

''Talking about calm at this stage is just nonsense and unacceptable,'' said Abu Ahmed, spokesman of Islamic Jihad's armed wing.

REUTERS SS KN1703

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