Israel seizes Palestinian-controlled area after mortars hit Israeli town |

Israel seizes Palestinian-controlled area after mortars hit Israeli town


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israel began pulling its forces out of a strip of Palestinian territory in Gaza on Tuesday after holding it less than a day, the military said. The withdrawal followed sharp U.S. criticism over the incursion.

After a barrage of heavy rocket fire, Israel seized nearly a square mile of the Gaza Strip early Tuesday in retaliation for a mortar attack on an Israeli desert town. It was the first time Israel took over Palestinian-controlled territory since peace accords were signed in 1994.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat denounced the seizure as an ”unforgivable crime” and said his people would ”not kneel before gangs.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell called the action in Gaza ”excessive and disproportionate,” and said Israel should respect its commitment to the Palestinians. ”The situation is threatening to escalate further, posing the risk of a broader conflict,” Powell said.

Israel initially said it could hold the territory – an area of orange groves and farmland – for months until Palestinian mortar fire stopped. But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s aides were quick to say their forces would withdraw when the danger of mortar attacks was gone.

Palestinian security officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. officials told them the Israelis would withdraw from the area.

A military statement said the pullout began after the mission was accomplished.

The Israeli assault came in response to mortar fire Monday night on Sderot, a working class town of 24,000 about 2 miles east of Gaza. The town is a stronghold of support for Sharon, and his sheep ranch is 5 miles away. The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the mortars, but Israel blamed Palestinian security forces.

Flares lit up the sky Monday night as Israeli forces shelled and rocketed Palestinian police stations across the Gaza Strip, killing a policeman and injuring 36 other people. Soon after, troops crossed into the corner of Gaza closest to Sderot, seizing and tearing down abandoned Palestinian security posts. Under Israeli tank fire, army bulldozers razed orange groves outside the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun, and Israeli troops built fortified positions.

During the barrage, hundreds of Palestinians, including crying children, ran into the streets in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood, where rockets punched holes in the facade of a police headquarters. Rimal resident Ghada Skaik, whose bedroom window was shattered, said she spent a sleepless night. ”If you go to bed and you can’t feel safe, then where can you go and feel safe?” she said.

By daybreak, after Israeli troops settled into their new positions, tanks periodically fired toward Palestinians trying to approach the area. Palestinian medics carrying the body of a Palestinian policeman away from the rubble of a Beit Hanoun police compound were sent running by Israeli fire, at one point dropping to the ground to take cover.

Two Palestinian boys were killed by Israeli gunfire late Tuesday. In Gaza’s Rafat refugee camp, Bara el-Shael, 10, was shot by soldiers, relatives and doctors said. In el-Khader, near Bethlehem in the West Bank, Rami Musa, 16, was killed when an Israeli tank shelled his home, Palestinians said. The Israeli military said there was an exchange of fire at el-Khader.

Since the violence erupted on Sept. 28, 474 people have been killed, including 391 Palestinians, 64 Israeli Jews and 19 others.

Israeli tanks also cut the Gaza Strip into three parts, preventing north-south traffic and paralyzing life in the crowded territory of 1 million Palestinians. The crossing from Gaza into Egypt was sealed.

Stranded Palestinian commuters resorted to the Mediterranean beach – the only remaining passage. Young women in long robes and white headscarves, some carrying schoolbooks, walked along the beach, and donkey carts and tractors ferried passengers.

The Israeli commander of the region, Brig. Gen. Yair Naveh, said that the seizure of the territory – about a square mile – removed Sderot from the danger of mortars.

Israeli troops withdrew from two-thirds of the 140-square-mile Gaza Strip in 1994, as part of interim peace accords with the Palestinians.

Since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in September, Israeli troops have entered Palestinian-controlled territory from time to time, but each time withdrew quickly.

Palestinians had fired dozens of mortars at Israeli targets in recent weeks, mainly Jewish settlements in Gaza. The attack on Sderot caused no damage or injuries, but was the first on a town inside Israel proper.

”This is unjustified and crosses the line,” Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Israel radio. ”There’s a limit to everything.”

Arafat said the Palestinians would fight until they obtained statehood. ”Everyone must understand that our strong people will not kneel in front of the gangs that are attacking our masses and our citizens and our villages and our refugee camps and cities,” he said after returning from a meeting in Egypt with President Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak, who has tried to mediate an end to the fighting, said peace efforts were now dead. ”I don’t see any possibility of success this way,” Mubarak said, blaming Sharon for the flareup.

The land was seized at a time of renewed tensions on Israel’s border with Lebanon. Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas killed an Israeli soldier in a weekend rocket attack, followed by an Israeli airstrike against Syrian targets in Lebanon, a first since the 1980s.

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