Israel launches attacks on Gaza in retaliation for Palestinian mortar attack
BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israeli helicopters and tanks hammered Palestinian positions in several parts of Gaza late Monday, retaliating for mortar shells fired at an Israeli town for the first time since fighting broke out seven months ago.
Israel, calling the mortar attack an escalation, also sent in bulldozers to disrupt farmland near Beit Hanoun, the suspected source of the mortar fire. Soldiers would begin to ”occupy positions,” the military said.
The upsurge in fighting overshadowed separate efforts by the United States and Jordan to defuse the crisis and restart peace talks.
The mortar shells had exploded harmlessly near the town of Sderot, less than 3 miles outside Gaza near Beit Hanoun. Earlier, mortar shells hit two small Israeli farming villages just outside the Gaza border, and a mortar critically injured a 15-month-old Israeli toddler in a Jewish settlement in Gaza.
Retaliating for the attack on Sderot, Israeli helicopters targeted Palestinian police outposts in Gaza City, Dir al-Balach in central Gaza and Rafah in the south late Monday, Palestinian witnesses said. Israel also used surface-to-surface missiles, they said.
One of the targets was a post in Rafah run by Force 17, an elite unit of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s police that Israel blames for many attacks, Palestinian witnesses said. Two Palestinians were wounded in the shelling near the Egyptian border, they said. The Israeli military confirmed that it struck Palestinian targets from the air.
A police officer was critically wounded in an attack on a main police installation in Gaza City, witnesses said. Children screamed as families fled homes for fear that the flames would spread, they said. Helicopters hovered overhead.
The Israeli military said the Palestinians had ignored repeated warnings to stop mortar attacks against Israeli villages and army positions. Israel had no intention of holding Palestinian-controlled territory and planned to withdraw its soldiers once the operation was over, a statement said. The army would not comment on reports of rocket attacks.
Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, accused Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority of being behind the attacks and of seeking the ”ultimate provocation” by using violence to achieve political gains. He said Palestinian security branches have ”turned into terrorist organizations,” and pledged a firm Israeli response.
The Palestinians accused Israel of aggression. Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo condemned the Israeli shelling and denied the Palestinian Authority was tied to the mortar attack. Brig. Gen. Abdel Razel el-Majaidah called it a ”false claim.”
The Palestinians canceled a meeting of security commanders set for late Monday. The U.S.-sponsored session, the third in recent days, was meant to defuse the crisis and restore cooperation.
But Gaza security chief Amin al-Hindi said ”we refuse to hold meetings under these circumstances while the Israeli army is continuing its aggression against our people.”
Palestinians and Israeli forces also exchanged fire near Jerusalem on Monday. Israeli police said Palestinians opened fire from the town of Beit Jalla at Israeli positions near Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood in disputed east Jerusalem. Israeli forces returned the fire.
In Jerusalem, Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Ilah Khatib presented Israeli leaders with a plan to end fighting with the Palestinians, though Israel signaled it would reject the proposals. Khatib met Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in the first visit by an Arab minister since the Israeli-Palestinian fighting erupted in September.
The plan requires the Palestinians to stop attacks and Israel to pull forces away from Palestinian towns, remove travel restrictions, transfer tax refunds owed the Palestinians and freeze all construction in Jewish settlements. The sides would try to reach a peace deal within six months.
The Palestinians have said they can work with the plan, but Sharon aides have dismissed key parts of it. Earlier, Gissin said Israel welcomed the Jordanian efforts but said that any proposal that does not call for a ”full-fledged,” immediate cessation of Palestinian attacks was a ”nonstarter.”
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