GAZA CITY - Israeli warplanes raided the northern Gaza Strip on Monday after Gaza fighters fired rockets over the border, as Israel readied to free a new batch of long-term Palestinian prisoners.
It was the first airstrike on Gaza in more than two months and came shortly after two rockets were fired towards southern Israel.
Despite the flareup along the Gaza border, which has been quiet for months, Israeli officials said it was unlikely to affect the prisoner release which is due to take place on Tuesday night as part of the ongoing direct peace talks with the Palestinians.
Witnesses said the airstrike targeted a training ground west of Beit Lahiya that was used by fighters from the armed wing of Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement.
Hamas slammed the Israeli raid as “an escalation which aims to terrorise... our people,” adding that it held Israel “completely responsible for any effects or deterioration.” Neither the airstrike nor the earlier rocket attacks on southern Israel caused any damage or casualties.
The Israeli military said the air force had struck “two concealed rocket launchers” in northern Gaza following an earlier cross-border attack.
That attack occurred just hours after Israel released a first batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners in line with commitments which led to a resumption of direct peace talks in late July, following months of sustained US pressure.
But Monday’s scuffle along the Gaza border was not expected to have any impact on plans to free a second batch of prisoners, with a senior official telling AFP it “won’t delay” the release of 26 another inmates.
The list of prisoners slated for release, 21 of them from the West Bank and five from Gaza, was approved on Monday by senior Israeli ministers.
The names were published later that night, giving victims’ families and groups 48 hours to mount a legal challenge before the release goes ahead.
All but one of them were arrested before the signing of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, which won the Palestinians limited self-rule but failed to bring about an independent state. All were convicted of murdering Israelis, according to the details published by Israel’s prison service.
A Fatah official told AFP that 19 of the prisoners set to be freed were members of its movement, which is led by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, while four belong to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and three to Hamas.
Meir Indor, head of Almagor, a group representing Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks, told AFP his organisation would be petitioning the high court against the impending release.
He said the release showed “double standards” because it was a result of American and European pressure on Israel, which unlike the Jewish state, he said, “do not release terrorists.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to release a total of 104 Palestinians in four stages in line with commitments which brought about a resumption of US-brokered direct talks on July 30 after a hiatus of nearly three years.