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Gaza militants launch strikes against Israel

JERUSALEM -- Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip fired dozens of rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel yesterday in the heaviest bombardment on the area in months, drawing ominous Israeli threats of retaliation and dangers of escalation.

The violence came a day after a landmark visit to Gaza by the emir of Qatar. Israeli officials suggested the visit, the first by a head of state to the Hamas-ruled territory, emboldened the militant group.

The rocket fire began shortly after the emir left Gaza late Tuesday and continued through the night. Israeli officials said more than 80 projectiles were fired, and Hamas claimed responsibility for many of the attacks.

Israel responded with a series of airstrikes on rocket launchers, killing two Palestinian militants, according to Gaza medical officials. Two other Palestinians were killed Tuesday.

Three Thai laborers working on an Israeli farm were wounded, two seriously, when a rocket hit a chicken coop. Other rockets badly damaged five houses and broke car windows. Schools in the area were closed.

Many people spent the day indoors, while others stayed close to the makeshift cement shelters found in the streets of southern Israeli towns.

In one farming community, shrapnel covered trees and a children's playhouse in a backyard.

"Sometimes it feels like a scene out of the movie 'Platoon,' something out of the Vietnam War. We can stay at home and just hear the noise of the war," said Tamara Cohen, a resident of the border community of Ein Habesor whose children, ages 9 and 5, spent the night in a fortified "safe room" in their home.

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