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OPT: Israel, militants exchange limited fire in Gaza

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By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA, May 31 (Reuters) - Israel launched air strikes against militants and a rocket launching site in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, injuring two Palestinians, but the number of attacks from both sides appeared to be dropping off.

The relative lull prompted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's adviser, Nabil Abu Rdainah, to suggest an "undeclared truce" was taking hold after two weeks of escalating violence.

Militants fired two makeshift rockets on Thursday. Israel launched two air strikes.

Militants fired five rockets on Wednesday and three on Tuesday, down from 14 rockets on Monday.

It is unclear how long the lull will last. Both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Hamas's armed wing have publicly rebuffed Abbas's repeated calls for a ceasefire.

Abbas will meet next week with Olmert, most likely in the West Bank city of Jericho.

Palestinian officials said Abbas hoped to convince the Israeli leader to back a new truce under which Israel and Palestinian militants would commit to stopping attacks, first in Gaza and eventually the occupied West Bank.

Israeli officials said Olmert planned to travel to Washington soon after the Abbas meeting for talks with U.S. President George W. Bush on how to revive peacemaking clouded by the current surge of violence.

Palestinian militants have fired more than 270 rockets from Gaza, killing two Israelis, over the past two weeks.

Hamas's armed wing took responsibility for the bulk of the rocket attacks, but it now appeared to be holding its launchers back. The Islamist group has not fired a rocket since Tuesday.

Israel has responded to the rocket fire by launching air strikes targeting Hamas facilities, commanders and rocket crews. Nearly 50 Palestinians have been killed so far, most of them fighters.

Israel has also carried out limited ground operations.

Local residents said on Thursday they saw two small ground forces entering Gaza and taking up positions near towns in the north and the south of the coastal strip.

The Israeli forces later pulled back and the army described the movements as routine.

One of the early morning air strikes hit a rocket launching position shortly after it fired into Israel.

"There were several rocket launchers. One launched and at least one other rocket launcher was ready to launch," said an Israeli army spokesman.

A second Israeli air strike targeted a rocket launching crew, the army said.

The Popular Resistance Committees militant group said two of its militants were lightly wounded after they fired rockets towards the nearby Israeli town of Sderot.

"We will continue to bombard Zionist settlements until the occupier is dismissed from our land," the group said, defying Abbas's call for a ceasefire.

Hamas says any ceasefire must include an immediate end to all Israeli attacks in both Gaza and West Bank.

Israel has rejected the idea, saying its operations in the West Bank were necessary to stop militant attacks. Israel has also rebuffed calls for a more limited Gaza truce, saying Hamas would use the lull to rearm.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Adam Entous)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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