Palestinian rocket hits near kindergarten

Israeli police officers speaks to Palestinian activist Hawaida Arraf, one of six who boarded a bus belonging to the Israeli bus company Egged, after it reached the Hizma checkpoint before entering Jerusalem on Nov. 15, 2011. Six Palestinian activists, defiantly clutching national flags and surrounded by dozens of reporters, were dragged off an Israeli bus that they were hoping would lead them to Jerusalem, after an hours-long stand off with police.
AP Photo/Diaa Hadid

A Palestinian rocket exploded near a kindergarten in southern Israel police said, just hours after Israel's military chief warned the army would have to carry out a broad offensive in Gaza to stop the rocket salvos.

The kindergarten was empty at the time of the rocket strike, which destroyed a storage shed next to the building. A second rocket landed in an open area nearby, police said on Tuesday.

As militants in Gaza fired rockets at nearby Israeli communities, six Palestinians boarded an Israeli bus, hoping to use the non-violent protest to draw attention to what they call discriminatory measures in the West Bank, particularly travel restrictions.

The Palestinian activists dubbed themselves "Freedom Riders" after 1960s American civil rights activists who worked in the U.S. South to counter racial discrimination and segregation there, though there were no security elements in the American rights struggle. Clutching national flags and surrounded by dozens of reporters, they were dragged off an Israeli bus they planned to ride into Jerusalem after a standoff with police.

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"We want to show the system of discrimination that we live in here. My point isn't go to jail; my point is to have the freedom to get on a bus," said Badia Dwaik, a 38-year-old civil servant, shortly before he was dragged off the Israeli number 148 Egged bus, which serves Israeli settlements.

Israeli officials say the travel restrictions on Palestinians are needed to prevent militants from entering Israel or West Bank settlements to stage attacks. The restrictions increased during the violent Palestinian uprising of 2000-2005, when buses were frequently blown up by suicide bombers.

Deadly violence is something both Palestinians and Israelis have suffered from. The latest flare-up in fighting took place several weeks ago, when Gaza militants fired volleys of rockets that killed one Israeli civilian and wounded several others. Israeli airstrikes targeting the rocket squads killed 10 Palestinian militants.

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Earlier this month the Israeli government authorized its military to take all necessary steps to stop rocket fire from Gaza, including a ground operation. The decision authorized the military to act in accordance with the severity of Palestinian attacks.

A senior Israeli military official told The Associated Press this week that Hamas, along with smaller militant groups, now possess sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. He said they also have rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv, roughly 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Gaza, meaning that Israel's main population center would be in range.

He said many of these arms have reached Islamic Jihad, responsible for much of the recent rocket fire.

Israel's military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told the committee Tuesday that the Islamic Jihad is stockpiling weapons and in Gaza, and even Hamas is worried about the buildup. Hamas has largely avoided the fighting, but Israel holds the group responsible for all attacks from Gaza because it rules Gaza.

Meanwhile, a rift between the two biggest Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, might bring peace to the region. The rival Palestinian groups have agreed to hold elections next May, Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior Fatah negotiator, said Tuesday. It would be a major step toward ending a four-year rift. He added that the sides agreed on the election plan in secret talks and are expected to formally approve it later this month.

The plan calls for the establishment of a caretaker government to prepare for the vote, most likely without current Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The Western-backed Fayyad is a U.S. educated economist, and is one of the main reasons millions of international aid is being provided to the Palestinian community. However, Hamas has objected to his involvement, claiming he is a pawn of the West.

Hamas and Fatah first signed a reconciliation plan last May calling for elections and a caretaker government, but the plan has not been implemented, in part because of disagreements over Fayyad.

Salah Bardawil, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said his group is ready to move forward on reconciliation if Fayyad is out of the picture.

"Hamas does not fear the elections and will respect the opinion of the Palestinian people," he said. Hamas won a parliamentary election in 2006.

Even if an agreement is reached in Cairo, implementing it is far from certain. The sides would still have to agree on a list of ministers in the new government, budget issues and how to combine rival security forces.

Any government that includes Hamas would also be shunned by Israel and the West, which have both branded the group a terrorist organization.