A dozen rockets and two mortars were fired late Wednesday and early Thursday, Israeli security forces said. Two rockets struck a warehouse and soccer stadium in the rocket-weary Israeli town of Sderot, but no one was injured. Israeli aircraft struck a loaded rocket launcher early Thursday, but no Palestinian injuries were reported.
The defense establishment expected that the indirect understanding with Hamas over a cease-fire in Gaza would likely collapse Thursday, as Islamic Jihad warned that it was preparing to fire Qassam rockets at the Negev in response to the killings of four of its members on the West Bank on Wednesday.
Five armed and wanted Palestinians were killed in total by Israeli Police anti-terrorist forces in two separate incidents.
In the first incident Wednesday morning in Kfar Tzaida east of Tulkarem, Salah Karkur, 27, of Islamic Jihad was killed during an attempt to arrest him by a combined operation of the IDF, Border Police and Shin Bet.
The second incident, in which four men were killed, occured in Bethlehem. Muhamad Shahade, one of the most wanted terrorist suspects of Islamic Jihad, was killed when the Israel Police special anti-terrorist unit attempted to arrest him. He was killed along with Imad Kamil and Isa Marzuka.
The fourth gunman killed was Ahmad Al-Balbul, a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, who had been held in detention by the Palestinian Authority for a long period.
The four had been wanted by Israel for eight years for conducting numerous terror attacks, including a series that killed six Israelis at the beginning of the second Intifada.
The gunmen were considered the leadership of Islamic Jihad in the Bethlehem area, and were in direct contact with the Jihad leadership in Syria. They were known to have dispatched car bombs to Jerusalem, and the Shin Bet claims the four were at the head of a network planning more terror attacks. The Shin Bet had not tied them to any specific attack planned in the near future.
Islamic Jihad has previously responded to the death of its members in the West Bank by firing Qassams from Gaza. Israeli sources found it difficult to predict how hard Hamas would try to restrain Jihad on Thursday.
According to Palestinian sources, the commitments made by Hamas to the Egyptian negotiators was only for a week of quiet, which is scheduled to end Friday.
The Shin Bet has already significantly increased the preparedness of the security around Israeli representatives and offices overseas, as well as that of Israeli airlines, mostly as a result of the killing of senior Hezbollah official Imad Mugniyah in Damascus on February 12.
The Shin Bet is afraid of a revenge attack by Hezbollah or Iran. The 40-day mourning period for Mugniyah will end in another 10 days, and Hezbollah has publicly threatened a number of times to perpetrate major attacks on Israeli targets, in response to the killing they credit to Israel. The Northern Command has also increased its readiness in response to Hezbollah threats.
In Wednesday's action, the security forces entered Bethlehem under cover to arrest Shahade. There they found the four in a car, armed with an M-16, pistols and grenades. They were killed after they left a restaurant near the government center in Bethlehem.
Karkur was hiding in a house when the security forces surrounded it. They called on him to leave the house, and after he did not respond to demands to turn himself in, the army used heavy engineering equipment to force him out.
Shots were then fired at the soldiers from inside the house, and explosive devices were also hurled at the forces. Karkur was killed during the exchange of fire. No soldiers were injured.
The IDF said Wednesday that Karkur was found with an Kalashnikov assault rifle, ammunition and explosive devices.
According to village resident Abdel Karim Hammad, whose family lives in the house where Karkur was hiding, Karkur refused to come out, a gunfight erupted, and Karkur was shot and killed. The Israelis then demolished half of the house and arrested Hammad's father for harboring a wanted gunman, he said.
A general strike was declared for Bethlehem on Wednesday after the killings, including schools. In addition, disturbances are expected today in Bethlehem, particularly near areas where the IDF is present.
The Palestinian Authority published a statement denouncing the the Israeli operations, and said it holds Israel responsible for a possible deterioration in the situation.
Ismail Haniyeh, prime minster of the Hamas-led government in Gaza, said Wednesday that any cease-fire with Israel in the Gaza area would be conditional on the cessation of arrests and killings in the West Bank. In a speech in front students at the Islamic University in Gaza, Haniyeh said that Hamas demands that the cease-fire also include the West Bank and not only the Gaza Strip something Israel rejects completely.
"We will not abandon you, our people in the West Bank," he said. "The violence directed against you is directed against us too."
The Hamas leadership in Damascus also presented the same demands on Wednesday, demanding Israel "end all forms of aggression" in both Gaza and the West Bank.
In so doing, Hamas is toughening its stance about the cease-fire and is now presenting demands that Israel has completely rejected: to end arrests in the West Bank. Hamas has previously claimed the right to retaliate against Israel for its operations in the West Bank.
Islamic Jihad leader Nafez Azzam in Gaza denounced the Israeli raid. "This new crime reflects the true face of the occupation," he said. "Killing still continues while they are talking
about the possibility of bringing calm, but if they think that calm means Palestinian surrender, they are mistaken."
Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel's raids in the West Bank showed "it was not interested in calm." Hamas, he said, would hold Israel responsible for the consequences.