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Air strike, shelling strain Gaza truce

AN Israeli aircraft struck a car traveling in the southern Gaza Strip yesterday, killing a Palestinian militant and further straining a truce with Hamas, as the Islamic militant group sent a delegation to Egypt in hopes of wrapping up a long-term cease-fire.

The air strike came a day after Israel's prime minister threatened "harsh and disproportionate" retaliation for continued violations of the informal January 18 cease-fire.

The truce, which ended a three-week offensive that killed nearly 1,300 Palestinians in Gaza, has been tested by sporadic Palestinian shelling attacks and Israeli air strikes.

In yesterday's air strike, the military said it targeted a group of militants who had fired mortar shells at Israel.

Palestinian medical officials said a militant in the vehicle was killed, while a second occupant, along with two bystanders, were wounded. The identities of the wounded were not immediately known.

The air strike took place in Rafah, a town located along Gaza's southern border with Egypt. With Gaza's borders sealed by Israel and Egypt, Rafah enjoys a bustling smuggling trade, and Israel frequently targets the area to prevent the flow of weapons into Gaza.

The fate of the border is a key sticking point in the Egyptian-mediated cease-fire talks. Israel wants an end to rocket attacks and arms smuggling.

Hamas wants Gaza's border crossings to reopen. The crossings, Gaza's main economic lifeline, have largely been closed since Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

In Syria, a member of Hamas' exiled leadership said the group is ready for a one-year truce with Israel in exchange for reopening the borders and lifting the economic blockade.

Despite the truce efforts, violence has been rising in recent days. Gaza militants fired at least 10 rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel on Sunday, wounding three people. Israel struck back with a series of attacks along the border area and in northern Gaza.

The tensions have raised the risk of fresh violence days ahead of Israel's national election. Continued fighting could work against the outgoing government and bolster hardline opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the current front-runner, in the February 10 vote.

Israel, along with the United States and Europe, considers Hamas a terrorist group, and says it spread its radical ideology throughout the region. Netanyahu has made the Iranian threat, along with what he says is its pursuit of nuclear weapons, a centerpiece of his campaign.

In separate violence on Monday, Israeli soldiers shot a Palestinian motorist near the West Bank city of Hebron after coming under fire from the car, the Israeli army said.


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