Palestinian militants strike deeper into Israel

Ahead of President Bush's trip to the Middle East, Israel intensifies operations in Gaza and the West Bank.

Militants in Gaza shot a rocket that hit the northern edge of Ashkelon Thursday, putting a major Israeli city – and its power station – in the line of fire for the first time. Traveling more than 11 miles, it was the farthest that a homemade rocket has reached, the Israeli army said.

The rocket strike came amid increasingly intense Israeli military operations in Gaza and even in parts of the West Bank. The Israeli army killed 12 Palestinians in Hamas-ruled Gaza Wednesday and Thursday, and Israel troops raided the West Bank city of Nablus, which is under the control of President Mahmoud Abbas.

The spike in Israeli military strikes and the encroaching range of Palestinian rockets from Gaza comes days before President Bush is due to visit the region, a trip intended to encourage momentum toward peace following the Annapolis, Md., summit last November.

Israeli officials indicate that among their main demands of Mr. Bush will be the ability to have "freedom of action" in the West Bank and Gaza regarding military action, despite whatever is happening in negotiations.

Palestinians, who view such activity as highly provocative, expect Bush to obtain a promise from Israel to stop settlement building and to enable Palestinians to travel through Israeli checkpoints.

Also Thursday, Israeli warplanes destroyed three houses belonging to Islamic Jihad militants, who were killed in separate Israeli airstrikes in Gaza two weeks ago, Palestinian witnesses said.

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