Israeli helicopters attack Palestinian targets in Gaza |

Israeli helicopters attack Palestinian targets in Gaza

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israeli helicopters fired dozens of rockets at bases of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s security services Tuesday, hours after a Palestinian mortar attack critically injured a 10-month-old Israeli baby and wounded his mother.

Seventy-seven Palestinians, including Palestinian policemen, were injured, said Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a senior aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He said 70 rockets were fired at five areas of Gaza.

In a seaside compound of Force 17, a Palestinian security service, rockets ripped through the metal roof of a large garage, burning a car. The wall of an empty, two-story arsenal adjacent to Arafat’s home was pierced by a missile. It was not clear whether Arafat’s home was damaged.

Amid the escalation, the United States was trying to arrange a three-way meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials to lower tensions. Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the time and place have not yet been set, but that Israelis and Palestinians have agreed in principle to attend.

Palestinian officials said all issues should be discussed, while Israel said it would only address security matters. Sharon has said he would not negotiate under fire.

U.S. participation in such a meeting would indicate that the Bush administration is gradually being drawn into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite its initial reluctance to get involved.

Abdel Rahim reiterated Palestinian claims that Sharon was implementing a 100-day plan of a gradual escalation, including rocket attacks, pinpointed killings and the capture of Palestinian militants.

Sharon’s aides have denied the existence of such a plan.

Tuesday’s rocket attack came just a few hours after Palestinians fired three mortar shells into the Jewish settlement of Atzmona in the Gaza Strip. One shell exploded near Leah Yered and her 10-month-old son, Ariel, spraying them with shrapnel, settler Zvulun Kalfa told Israel TV.

The infant was critically wounded in the head and other parts of the body, while his mother broke an arm and suffered shrapnel injuries to the stomach, said Dr. Emmanuel Katz of Beersheba Hospital in southern Israel.

”We are attacking targets that are involved in terrorism after the barbaric and unbearable attack against the baby,” said Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, a spokesman for the Israeli army. ”All the targets are involved in terror activities against Israel.”

Israel charges that Force 17 is responsible for many attacks against Israeli civilians, including ambushes, drive-by shootings and mortar bombings.

Arafat was in the West Bank town of Ramallah at the time of the assault. Ramallah was not targeted, but Israeli tanks fired shells at a Force 17 residence building in nearby Beitunia, destroying the building, Palestinians said. The building was empty.

The rocket attack on Gaza began sometime after 8 p.m. At least seven Israeli helicopter gunships hovered above Gaza City, firing rockets at intervals of a few seconds. Flashes lit up the night sky, followed by loud booms.

”They are targeting all of us! All the Palestinian people are in danger!” shouted Ali Hassan, a Palestinian policeman who fired a bullet into the air as he ran for cover.

Israel and the Palestinians heaped blame on each other.

Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi said Israel cannot achieve security through military means while it continues the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. ”Things keep getting worse,” she said.

Speaking from Paris on Israel TV, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said: ”The violent actions against us have reached a level that cannot be tolerated.”

Gissin, the Sharon aide, said Israel’s offensive to stop Palestinian attacks would continue. ”Those who perpetrate the attacks, and those who direct them, should not be surprised if we go after them. They should start worrying, or stop what they’re doing,” Gissin said.

On Monday, Israeli helicopter gunships killed Mohammed Abdel Al, a leader of the military wing of Islamic Jihad, a faction responsible for a series of bombing and shooting attacks on Israelis.

Last Wednesday, Israeli helicopters struck Force 17 headquarters and outposts in Gaza City and the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Sharon’s office said Arafat was doing nothing to stop the violence. Israel was left with no choice ”but to act tenaciously and vigorously to frustrate terrorist attacks and protect the security of Israeli citizens,” the statement said.

The mortar attack on Atzmona, the Jewish settlement, apparently came from the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah where Abdel Al, the Islamic Jihad activist, was killed on Monday.

A group calling itself ”Hezbollah-Palestine” claimed responsibility for the mortar attack. Israel has charged that Force 17 has ties with Hezbollah, a guerrilla group in Lebanon which for years fought Israeli forces there.

About 6,500 Jewish settlers reside in small, heavily guarded enclaves in Gaza, among more than 1 million Palestinians. The settlers have been targeted for attack throughout the Palestinian uprising, which erupted more than six months ago.

The mortar salvo came eight days after a 10-month-old Israeli baby girl was shot dead by a Palestinian gunman in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Since the fighting began in September, 458 people have been killed, including 375 Palestinians, 64 Israeli Jews and 19 others.

AP-WS-04-03-01 2036EDT

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