Israel shoots down Tel Aviv-bound rocket; Hamas chief in Cairo

TEL AVIV (REUTERS) - Palestinian militants fired a rocket at Tel Aviv on Saturday, but it was intercepted in mid-air by a newly deployed Israeli anti-missile battery and caused no casualties or damage, police said.

The armed wing of the Islamist Hamas movement said in Gaza that it launched a long-range Fajr-5 rocket at the city, Israel's commercial centre.

It was the third rocket attack on Tel Aviv since Israel began an air offensive in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

The Israeli military rushed an Iron Dome interceptor battery to the Tel Aviv area hours before the attack on Saturday.

AP Television News footage showed a plume of smoke rising from an "Iron Dome" rocket-defence battery deployed near the city, followed by a burst of light overhead. The smoke trailed the intercepting missile.

Deployment of the system came several months earlier than planned.

Police confirmed the interception and said the rocket had not struck ground. The Magen David Adom ambulance service said there were no casualties.

The interception provided a psychological boost for Israel, which has been bombarded by hundreds of rockets since it launched a military offensive on Wednesday against the Hamas Islamic militant group in the Gaza Strip.

People sheltered along Tel Aviv's beachfront boardwalk, scrambling for cover after air raid sirens went off, cheered after the interception occurred.

Gaza militants also targeted Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial and cultural center, some 70km north of Gaza, on Thursday and Friday.

A senior official, meanwhile, said Hamas chief Meshaal was in Cairo on Saturday to confer on ending the Gaza conflict, but the Islamist group was reluctant to agree to a ceasefire without guarantees Israel would honour it.

Mr Meshaal was scheduled to meet with Egypt's intelligence chief, as well as Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, both visiting Cairo.

Hamas, now its fourth day of conflict with Israel around the Gaza Strip, doubts that any country could guarantee terms for a ceasefire, the senior Hamas official said.

"Through Egyptian mediation, we reached an understanding for a truce, and it was broken in about 48 hours," he said of an Israeli air strike on Wednesday that killed the Hamas military chief, after rockets were fired from Gaza.

"Egypt now cannot say: 'I guarantee a truce,'" he said, adding it would require a stronger effort by the "international community".

Hamas' last sustained conflict with Israel in December 2008-January 2009 ended with an Egyptian mediated truce that was meant to guarantee a loosening of Israel's blockade of Gaza.