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Israel steps up attacks on militants, dealing blow to Islamic Jihad with deaths

    GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel will keep striking the leaders of groups that launch rockets from the Gaza Strip, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged Tuesday after an hours-long aerial assault killed 12 militants including the commander of the extremist group Islamic Jihad.
    Islamic Jihad threatened ‘‘a wave of martyrdom operations’’ — suicide bombings in Israel — in response to what it called ‘‘a big loss.’’
    The Israeli attack began when aircraft blasted two cars in Gaza City after nightfall Monday, killing six men including Majed Harazin, Islamic Jihad’s charismatic military commander for Gaza and the West Bank. Rocket-maker Karim al-Dahdouh also was killed in the attack.
    Four more men were targeted as they emerged from morning prayers Tuesday at a northern Gaza mosque. Two members of the larger Hamas militant group, which rules Gaza, were killed in a separate airstrike in southern Gaza.
    Meeting members of his Kadima party in Jerusalem late Tuesday, Olmert pledged to keep up the pressure.
    ‘‘We will continue to seek out the heads of the terror organizations,’’ he said, ‘‘We will get all those who are responsible for firing rockets. The terror organizations feel this and will feel this in full force in the near future.’’
    Defense Minister Ehud Barak emerged from a meeting with James L. Jones, the new American military envoy to the region, and said Israel would not let up in its offensive in Gaza, although the militants’ threats of revenge must be taken seriously.
    ‘‘I hope these successes continue. At the same time we must be on our guard for the responses that may come from the other side,’’ Jones, who spent the day meeting top Israeli military and political officials, did not speak to reporters.
    Israel has intensified its activity in Gaza since Hamas seized control of Gaza, carrying out airstrikes and limited ground incursions in response to near-daily rocket attacks on southern Israeli communities. It has killed dozens of militant leaders, including Harazin’s predecessor.
    The Israeli operation that ended Tuesday was the deadliest since Hamas took over Gaza in June.
    Islamic Jihad, a small violent group with ties to Iran, has been responsible for most of the rocket fire.
    ‘‘There is no doubt that this is a big loss,’’ said Khader Habib, an Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza, who threatened the wave of suicide bombings in response.
    Thousands of Gazans took to the streets in funeral processions for the militants. In northern Gaza, bullets from the rifles of mourners severed an electric wire that fell and injured five people, medics said.
    Israeli security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters, said they had been tracking the movements of Harazin, 38, for weeks.
    It was not immediately clear what the long-term impact of the airstrikes would be.
    Islamic Jihad has always rebounded from Israeli strikes, and the rocket fire has persisted. Early Tuesday, militants fired mortar shells and rockets at Israel, causing no casualties, the military said.
    Islamic Jihad has never called a truce with Israel, but its ability to carry out attacks has been limited by Israel’s West Bank separation barrier and isolation of Gaza.
    Although Hamas hasn’t been heavily involved in the rocket fire, Israel holds it responsible because it allows other groups, including Islamic Jihad, to operate with impunity.
    At the same time, Israel has relaunched peace talks with the rival Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were routed by Hamas during the Gaza takeover. Abbas heads a pro-Western government based in the West Bank, and he wields little control over Gaza.
    The airstrikes came a day after Abbas gained strong support at an international donors’ conference in Paris. Donors pledged $7.4 billion over the next three years, far more than he expected.
    In the West Bank town of Ramallah, Abbas’ prime minister, Salam Fayyad, said the aid would allow the cash-strapped government to pay its employees and start development projects in the West Bank and Gaza.
    The peace negotiations relaunched last week got off to a rocky start over Israel’s refusal to halt construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank — areas captured in the 1967 Mideast war that the Palestinians want as part of a future state.
    On Tuesday, a top ally of Olmert proposed solving the problem by swapping Israeli territory for disputed land where Jewish communities or neighborhoods have been built.
    ‘‘What I propose is that we reach an agreement with the Palestinians today over the principle of settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty and in return an exchange of territory,’’ Vice Premier Haim Ramon said, becoming the first Israeli official to openly endorse the idea.
    Abbas has expressed support for a land swap. But in Paris, he said any swap would require Israel to hand over ‘‘the same quality and quantity of land’’ that it keeps. He reiterated his calls for a freeze on all settlement activity.
    Israel hopes to reach a peace deal with Abbas by 2008, though officials say an agreement can’t be carried out until he regains control of Gaza. Abbas condemned the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, but also condemned the rocket attacks as ‘‘useless.’’

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