Israeli forces rocket Palestinian headquarters
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israeli helicopters rocketed headquarters of Force 17, Yasser Arafat’s elite guard, in Gaza and the West Bank town of Ramallah on Wednesday, retaliating for a wave of bombings, including a suicide attack that killed two Israeli teen-agers.
Red flares lit up the night sky over Ramallah, where two people were killed in the assault, and flames leaped from burning buildings and cars as firefighters tried to put out multiple blazes.
Doctors in Ramallah said the dead included a member of Force 17 and a female civilian. Overall, more than two dozen Palestinians were injured in Ramallah and Gaza, several critically, doctors said.
The attacks on Palestinian government buildings were the first since last fall and further eroded the fabric and foundation of the peace agreements that granted the Palestinians autonomy and self-government.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly accused Force 17 of involvement in attacks against Israeli civilians.
”The purpose is to strike directly at those responsible for terrorism,” the Israeli military said in a statement. The military said it hit the Force 17 headquarters in Ramallah, and four Force 17 targets around Gaza City and Deir al-Balah in the southern Gaza Strip – including a training camp and an arms depot.
The buildings under attack – all in areas governed by Arafat’s Palestinian Authority under peace agreements – had been evacuated after the Israeli military warned the Palestinians to leave.
In Gaza City, the low-flying Israeli gunships blasted a Force 17 building that had been used as a weapons arsenal and is only 100 yards from Arafat’s house.
The Palestinians said the building had been empty for some time, but women and children screamed as they fled nearby buildings. The smell of gunpowder hung in the salty sea air after the attack.
Arafat was in Amman, Jordan, where Arab leaders wrapped up a two-day summit earlier Wednesday with pledges of financial aid to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority.
In a summit statement, Arab leaders voiced ”their continued commitment to a comprehensive, permanent and just peace in the Middle East,” but also assailed Israel in language that recalled Arab wars with the Jewish state.
At the United Nations, in its first U.N. veto since 1997, the United States heeded a call from Israel and killed a resolution backing a U.N. observer force to help protect Palestinians.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the Israeli attacks ”a response to the Arab summit” and noted that it followed the U.S. veto of a resolution for a force that the Palestinians had requested.
Erekat described Wednesday’s attacks as ”premeditated Israeli aggression which will escalate drastically.”
The nighttime assault came hours after a suicide bomber detonated nail-filled explosives strapped to his body near a group of Jewish seminary students waiting at the roadside near the West Bank, killing two. The previous day, militants carried out back-to-back attacks, including a suicide attack that injured two dozen people.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for both suicide bombings and said more bombers were ready to strike.
Sharon, who had been under growing pressure to respond to Palestinian attacks, which included three bombings and the shooting death of a 10-month-old girl in less than 48 hours, called his security Cabinet into session before the Israeli offensive began.
”We are witnessing grave terrorist activities – terrorist activities that the chairman of the Palestinian Authority (Arafat) has not been willing until now to control,” Sharon said.
Israel says Arafat has released hundreds of Islamic militants from prison in recent months, and that gunmen of the Tanzim militia affiliated with Arafat’s Fatah movement have killed a number of Israelis in shooting attacks over the past six months.
Since the uprising began in late September, 443 people have been killed, including 362 Palestinians, 62 Israeli Jews and 19 others.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Amr denied the Palestinian Authority had any ties to the bombings in recent days.
The Israeli assault began after the Arab summit ended, apparently because Israel wanted to avoid any retaliation during the gathering of Arab heads of state.
Israel launched a similar helicopter assault in October, striking Palestinian police buildings in Ramallah and near Arafat’s headquarters in Gaza City, in retaliation for the mob killing of two Israeli reserve soldiers in Ramallah.
The latest suicide bomber targeted a group of teen-agers who had been dropped off at a gas station Wednesday near the communal farm of Sdeh Hemed, about 15 miles northeast of Tel Aviv near the boundary of the West Bank. The teens were waiting for a bus to their school in the West Bank.
The assailant, described as a man in his late 20s with black hair and a mustache, approached the youngsters.
”He looked at them. Then the explosion went off,” said one of the students, Rafael Somer, 15, suppressing tears. ”I was hurled backward. When I got up, I saw one of my friends without hands. Another friend was torn apart.” Somer was lightly injured.
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