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Israeli airstrike kills 2 Hamas militants in Gaza
Palestinians carry the body of Hamas militant Ayman Al Bana, one of two killed in an Israeli air strike early Saturday, during their funeral procession in Jabalia refugee camp north of Gaza Strip, Saturday Jan. 19, 2008. Israeli air strikes killed two Hamas militants, a day after Israel sealed the territory and bombed an empty Hamas government ministry in an intensifying campaign - photo by Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israeli aircraft killed two Hamas militants in Gaza fighting early Saturday and Palestinians lobbed three rockets into Israel, a day after Israel sealed the borders and bombed an empty Hamas building.

Despite intense fighting in the region over the past four days, rocket fire appeared to ease Saturday. A day earlier, 16 rockets hit southern Israel.

A spokesman for Hamas militants in Gaza, using the nom de guerre Abu Obeida, would not link Saturday's reduction in fire to Israeli strikes or new sanctions introduced Friday and said the tempo could be increased again at any time.

"Sometimes our tactic is to increase fire, sometimes to hold back," he said. "It needs a few days to show."

On Tuesday, an Israeli ground and air offensive against rocket squads claimed the lives of 19 Palestinians. Since then a total of 36 Gazans have been killed, among them at least 10 civilians.

The group said Saturday it had caught a would-be suicide bomber sent by President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement to assassinate Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, though it provided no evidence.

Abbas' office denied the allegations, saying they were intended to divert attention from Hamas' difficulties in ruling Gaza.

Early Saturday, Israeli forces backed by tanks and bulldozers entered Gaza and searched homes in the town of Jebaliya. Hamas gunmen exchanged fire with the troops, and Israeli aircraft fired three missiles, killing two Hamas fighters, hospital officials said.

The military said troops captured four armed Hamas men in the Jebaliya raid and took them to Israel for interrogation.

Since the violent Hamas takeover of Gaza in June, Israel has severely restricted access to Gaza, but basic food supplies and fuel were still getting through. The blockade and the bombing of the government ministry are part of an Israeli attempt to halt a surge of rocket fire on Israeli border towns.

In New York on Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon implored Israel to reverse its unprecedented decision to close the border crossings completely, warning that the cutoff of supplies is provoking a humanitarian crisis among 1.4 million Gazans.

Friday's attack on the empty government ministry appeared to signal a new phase in the cross-border violence between Israel and Gaza. The building, regarded as a symbol of Hamas authority, was seen as a message to Hamas that Israel was ready to step up air strikes if rocket attacks continue.

An Israeli warplane bombed the Palestinian Interior Ministry, flattening one wing, killing a woman at a wedding party next door and wounding at least 46 civilians. The strike left hundreds without electricity and water and terrified residents.

An escalation of the Gaza fighting could complicate President Bush's efforts to prod the sides toward a final peace deal by year's end.

International aid groups said they were concerned at the Gaza closure, which was expected to last at least several days. About 120 daily truckloads of basic foods and medicine have been allowed through since June, but all border traffic was halted Friday.

Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror said Gazans had sufficient food stocks. "There is a government decision that there will not be a humanitarian crisis in Gaza," Dror said.

It was too early Saturday to gauge the impact of the latest measure, but as a result of previous reductions, service stations in the south of the strip already had run out of gasoline and the Gaza electricity plant was working at half-capacity causing long power outages, residents said.

John Ging, the Gaza-based head of UNRWA, said Israeli officials told him they would meet early next week to evaluate the situation and decide whether to reopen the passages.

Palestinian leaders have denounced Israel's strikes and sanctions, but in remarks Saturday, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad also was bitterly critical of the Gaza rocket campaign.

"Launching rockets has brought us nothing but catastrophes and hardships," he said during a visit to the northern West Bank town of Salfit.

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