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Hamas Fires Dozens of Rockets at Israel, Heaviest Barrage in Years

"beat up reporters and confiscated their equipment"

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Palestinian militants in Gaza fired more than 50 rockets into Israel on Saturday, the heaviest barrage in two years, Israeli officials said, while Hamas police beat up reporters and confiscated their equipment.

A Hamas official was killed and four civilians were wounded when Israel hit back with tank fire and air strikes, said Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Adham Abu Salmia.

The violence comes amid increasing calls for reconciliation between Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his bitter rivals, the Islamic militant group Hamas. Abbas is seeking U.N. recognition for a Palestinian state by the fall and is currently lobbying for votes worldwide. Hamas used force to disperse a reconciliation rally in Gaza. Some reporters were later beaten up, threatened and briefly detained.

Israeli police spokesman Tamir Avtabi said Gaza militants fired 54 mortar shells at Israeli border communities within 15 minutes. He said two Israeli civilians were lightly wounded by shrapnel and residents were advised to stay at home or in bomb shelters.

Hayim Yellin, head of the Eshkol region where the mortars exploded, said they were the same type as those intercepted on a cargo ship last week loaded with weapons Israel said were sent by Iran to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he will file a complaint at the U.N. after Saturday's unusually large barrage of rockets. In a statement, Lieberman said the Palestinians "primary goal is destroying Israel."

Hamas acknowledged it launched some of the mortars - an unusual move as the Islamic militant group does not usually take responsibility for such attacks. Hamas fears triggering another Israeli invasion similar to a three-week operation aimed at stopping daily Palestinian shelling two years ago that killed about 1,400 Palestinians.

Israeli police said the mortar barrage Saturday was the heaviest since that round of fighting.

Israel holds Hamas responsible for all violence originating in Gaza, though Hamas usually blames smaller groups for rocket fire.

Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said the shelling was in reaction to recent Israeli airstrikes that killed militants. He warned Israel "not to test Hamas' response."

Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza in bloody street battles in 2007. Since then, Hamas controls Gaza and the Western backed secular Fatah rules the West Bank.

Repeated efforts to reconcile the two rival governments have failed. Palestinians have held rallies in Gaza and the West Bank in recent days calling for the two sides to resolve their differences.

On Saturday, Hamas used force to break up a small rally, witnesses said and later beat up reporters from major international news outlets.

An Associated Press Television News cameraman was nearby when he was cornered by Hamas police and beaten with sticks. He was briefly detained and released unharmed. Other cameramen also were beaten and some had their equipment confiscated by Hamas.

Hamas also raided the offices of the Reuters news agency, CNN and Japanese channel NHK in Gaza. A Reuters producer was arrested by Hamas and witnesses later saw him leave hospital with a bandage wrapped around his hand.

Reuters Bureau Chief Crispian Balmer said "A group of armed men entered our office in Gaza and threatened our employees and confiscated a video camera after we were spotted filming a demonstration from the building. They smashed a TV in the office, they clubbed one of our guys on the arm with a metal club and they threatened to throw another one of our employees out of the window."

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri spoke out against the raids in a message sent to reporters. "We condemn the attack on Reuters agency in Gaza and we call on the Hamas interior ministry to investigate this incident, we emphasize our respect for the media," he said.

The internal Palestinian rift makes their vision of statehood harder to achieve and hinders their ability to reach a peace agreement with Israel.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed last year over disputes about Israeli construction in the West bank, areas Palestinians want as parts of their future state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to deliver a major policy speech soon on peacemaking.

Israel's channel 2 TV broadcast a rare interview Saturday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recorded last week. Abbas told the Israeli station that he was "more determined than ever to reach a solution with Israel." Abbas said Gaza and the West Bank had to reconcile. "Hamas have committed terrible crimes but they are still part of the Palestinian people," he said.

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