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Israeli Strikes on Hamas-Ruled Gaza Kill at Least Seven

March 22 (Bloomberg) -- Israeli soldiers fired tank shells into the Gaza Strip killing four teenagers playing soccer and an air strike left three other people dead in a separate incident, the head of emergency services in Gaza said.

The Israeli army said in a statement that both strikes were aimed at Palestinians firing mortar shells and rockets at Israel.

“We regret the fact that civilians were killed, that was not our intention, but this is the price from the threat that Hamas poses to us,” army spokeswoman Avital Leibovich said by phone.

A group of masked militants fired mortar shells at Israel from near a playground, where teenagers were playing soccer, said 28-year-old Mohammed, a eyewitness who asked that his full name be withheld for fear of reprisal. He said minutes after the mortars were fired the Israelis shot back.

The current escalation began on March 19, when the military wing of the Islamic Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, took responsibility for launching 50 mortar shells at southern Israel, injuring two Israeli civilians. Earlier this month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he has plans to visit Gaza in a bid to end a nearly four-year split with Hamas.

The Hamas government yesterday urged its armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, not to give Israel a reason to strike Gaza. In December 2008, Israel launched a three-week offensive against Hamas in what it said was a bid to stop rocket fire. More than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in that conflict.

Anti-Tank Attacks

Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, ending a partnership government with Abbas’s Fatah after winning parliamentary elections the previous year. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the European Union and the U.S.

At least 19 Gazans have been injured in the current round of violence, according to Adham Abu Selmeya, chief of emergency services in Gaza, who confirmed today’s deaths.

Israeli soldiers earlier today opened fire on Palestinians preparing to shoot an anti-tank missile at a patrol, an Israeli army spokeswoman said, speaking on condition of anonymity according to regulation.

To contact the reporters on this story: Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem at gackerman@bloomberg.net; Saud Abu Ramadan in Jerusalem at sramadan@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net.

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