JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli aircraft struck a target in the northern Gaza Strip Wednesday, killing one person and wounding three others, in the first deadly violence between the sides since a new Palestinian government took office last week.
The late-night airstrike came hours after Palestinian militants fired a rocket into southern Israel, the first such attack since President Mahmoud Abbas formed the new government and took charge, at least formally, of Gaza. Israel has warned it would hold the Western-backed Abbas responsible for any attacks out of the territory, even though the rival Hamas militant group maintains de facto control.
Witnesses said the airstrike targeted a man on a motorcycle and also struck a nearby car. Palestinian medical officials said two of the wounded were in critical condition. They did not immediately identify the casualties.
But in a statement, the Israeli military identified the target as a 33-year-old militant linked to "global jihad," a term it uses to describe groups that are affiliated or inspired by al-Qaida. It said the man had participated in "many" rocket attacks while also working as a Hamas policeman, and described the airstrike as pre-emptive.
"Our policy is clear. Kill those who rise up to kill us," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. He said he wanted to "remind" the international community that Abbas had pledged the new government would uphold previous agreements with Israel. "This means that he is responsible for dismantling Hamas and other terror groups" in Gaza, he said.
Earlier, Abbas' office condemned the rocket fire and urged Gaza militants to abide by previous cease-fire deals. Israel dismissed the condemnation as "empty rhetoric." The threat of violence is one of the many challenges Abbas is dealing with as he tries to unite two territories after a seven-year rift. Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas' forces in June 2007.
Under last week's deal, Abbas' new 17-member Cabinet is to administer both Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Hamas has no formal role in the technocrat government, but it backs the unity government and remains the de facto power in Gaza with thousands of armed fighters.
The U.S. and European Union have so far been willing to give Abbas, a strong proponent of nonviolence, a chance. The U.S. welcomed Abbas' condemnation and suggested it wasn't ready to hold the new unity government responsible for the attack.
"We expect the Palestinian Authority will do everything in its power to prevent attacks from Gaza into Israel, but we acknowledge the reality that Hamas currently controls Gaza," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Militants in Gaza, including members of Hamas, have fired thousands of rockets at Israel over the years, though Hamas mostly observed an informal truce in recent years. The West considers Hamas a terror group because of scores of deadly attacks on Israel, though Abbas has said the new Cabinet will follow his pragmatic program.
he unity government was meant to end a crippling split between Abbas and Hamas, but the road to reconciliation has been bumpy, with many issues unresolved. Salary payments for more than 40,000 government employees hired by Hamas during the past seven years are a key point of contention. Hamas wants them to be paid by the unity government, though donor countries would likely balk at the idea of seeing aid go for salaries for members of the Hamas security forces.
Hamas kept Gaza's banks closed for the past week in an attempt to pressure Abbas to find a solution, but allowed the banks to reopen Wednesday amid rising public anger against the group. Long lines formed at cash machines as people rushed to withdraw their salaries.
Tens of thousands of Abbas loyalists who worked for his Palestinian Authority in Gaza before the Hamas takeover have continued to receive salaries since 2007 on condition they not work for the Hamas administration.
Hamas officials said no solution to the problem has been found and suggested the opening of the banks is temporary.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Gaza City contributed to this report.