Israeli helicopters blast Palestinian police post in Gaza
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – A fierce firefight erupted early Wednesday between Israeli forces and Palestinians near a bloc of Jewish settlements in Gaza, wounding at least 25 Palestinians, casting doubt on U.S. efforts to convene a meeting of security commanders later in the day.
Palestinians said Israelis attacked with helicopters rocketed a Palestinian police post next to the Khan Yunis refugee camp, and tanks fired shells at the camp.
The Israeli military said there was a ”very heavy” exchange of fire, but denied that helicopters were used.
The violence followed a day of rocket and mortar exchanges between the two sides. A U.S.-brokered meeting of security commanders was put off for a second time and rescheduled for later Wednesday, a Palestinian official said, but the new outbreak threw it into question again.
Eyewitnesses said an explosion, apparently a Palestinian mortar shell exploding at a Jewish settlement, set off the fire fight near Khan Yunis. Palestinians said six Israeli tanks advanced toward the refugee camp, a source of almost daily fire at the nearby Jewish settlements.
Tank fire leveled two houses in the camp, witnesses said. One collapsed on its occupants, who included children, they said.
Three Palestinian reporters were among the injured, according to doctors, who said their wounds were not serious.
Palestinians said announcements made on mosque loudspeakers in the squalid shantytown called on residents and gunmen to take to the streets to defend themselves against Israeli aggression.
Israeli has been targeting Palestinian police headquarters and outposts with helicopter and tank fire and rockets, responding to Palestinian mortar barrages at Israeli settlements in Gaza and villages just outside the territory.
On Tuesday, Israel rocketed Palestinian security installations in its first daylight attack in months, killing a Palestinian police doctor.
The escalating exchanges come after more than six months of violence that has claimed more than 460 lives and has shattered a peace effort that last year seemed to hold out the promise of a historic Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.
Brig. Gen. Abdel Razek Majaida, a top Palestinian commander in Gaza, termed Tuesday’s rocket attack a ”declaration of war,” and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights called for international intervention to ”put an end to Israeli violations.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, speaking from Turkey, insisted it was ”a declaration against terror, not a declaration for war.”
Lt. Wael Quoweiter, a 30-year-old doctor working for Palestinian naval police, was killed when Israeli rockets slammed into a headquarters building in Gaza City. Palestinians said 20 people were wounded in Tuesday’s attacks.
Later, after another Palestinian mortar barrage, Israeli tanks fired two shells at a police station in northern Gaza, destroying it.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested retaliation will intensify until the Palestinians hold their fire, and his adviser warned that the Palestinians are ”in for a great many surprises.”
During Tuesday’s exchange, Sharon toured a military base near Nahal Oz, an Israeli collective farm that has been hit by mortars. He told reporters he has a ”very clear” program to stop the violence. ”That program will be implemented and security will return.”
In an interview published Tuesday, Sharon staked out a tough position two explosive issues, saying he would not remove any Jewish settlements or compromise with the Palestinian over Jerusalem.
”I have not changed my views,” he told the daily Haaretz, outlining hard-line positions he spelled out often in public life but has not detailed since taking office last month.
Also Tuesday, a leading Israeli rabbi evoked an angry response by calling for ”destruction of the Arabs” in a public sermon. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the powerful Shas party, said the Arabs must be ”shown no mercy” and should be ”joyfully hit with rockets.”
Tayeb Abdel Rahim, an aide to Arafat, said Yosef’s tirade was part of the Israeli government’s ”aggression,” and called for international protection. Yosef’s aides said he was referring only to violent Arabs.
Continuing violence undermined a U.S. effort to restore security coordination between the two sides.
At the urging of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, security chiefs from the two sides met last week near Tel Aviv. But as the Palestinians were returning to Gaza, Israeli soldiers opened fire on their convoy, wounding a bodyguard. Israel claims the Palestinians opened fire first. In a note to Powell, Sharon expressed regret for the incident, but Palestinians are demanding a full apology.
Since late September, 463 people have been killed, including 380 Palestinians, 64 Israeli Jews and 19 others.
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After a period of dry, warm weather, winter returns this week to Lake Tahoe.