Crude rockets fired into Israel

Israelis say weapon escalates the conflict with the Palestinians

February 11, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Palestinians fired rockets into Israel yesterday, the Israeli military said, introducing a powerful weapon that adds a dangerous new dimension to the conflict.

The Israeli army was uncertain whether the weapons were Kassam-2 rockets, because only fragments were found. But officials said an impact crater in a field near a communal farming community north of the Gaza Strip was unusually large - 5 feet wide and 3 feet deep.

Army officers said soldiers went into Palestinian areas of the Gaza Strip and found three Kassam-2 rocket launchers. The rockets have a range of five miles and could give Palestinians a way to strike at Israeli population centers without having to leave the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has warned that the firing of Palestinian rockets would be a serious escalation of the conflict that would bring a "total change in our military tactics."

Last night, Israeli F-16 fighter jets launched apparent retaliatory attacks on a Palestinian police building in the northern Gaza Strip, injuring at least 10 people. Helicopters later attacked another security headquarters and what Israel said was a rocket factory in the nearby Jebaliya refugee camp.

In Jebaliya, north of Gaza City, seven Israeli helicopters fired 11 missiles at what residents said was a metal workshop. Several homes were heavily damaged, and one person was slightly wounded.

The Palestinian rocket firings and an attack yesterday that left two female soldiers dead and five people injured outside a military compound in Beersheba in southern Israel prompted Sharon to convene his security Cabinet in emergency session last night.

They were the latest in a string of attacks that has left seven Israelis dead in four days. Six Palestinians involved in the assaults, including a 14-year-old boy, have been killed by Israeli soldiers and police.

Ali Amar, a Palestinian Authority spokesman, dismissed Israeli assertions that rockets had been fired.

"They're not really missiles," he said. "Israel says they are dangerous new weapons. We do not agree."

The Islamic militant group Hamas has acknowledged possessing the rockets, which were developed from prototypes smuggled into Gaza from Lebanon.

Amar said Palestinian police remain committed to Arafat's call for a cease-fire, and vowed to hunt down and destroy the rockets. But the spokesman said that is impossible until Sharon agrees to reopen talks.

"Continued Israeli aggression without any dialogue does not solve the problem," he said.

Israeli officials have been concerned about the rockets for some time, and intelligence officials say they believe that hundreds have been smuggled from the Gaza Strip into the West Bank, from which they can easily reach crowded cities.

Last week, Israeli soldiers found eight rockets hidden in a Palestinian fruit truck on a road between Nablus and Jenin, the first confirmation that the missiles were in the West Bank. In yesterday's incident, the army said it found the remains of what appears to be a Kassam rocket, but it would take testing to confirm its origin.

A senior Israeli army intelligence official briefing reporters yesterday described the missiles as smaller than the Katyusha rockets that are sometimes fired into Israel from Lebanon "but still big enough to cause a lot of damage. It's a very dangerous weapon."

The relatively crude Kassam rockets are 5 inches in diameter and pack slightly less explosive than is carried by many suicide bombers, but have greater range and are more deadly than the mortars often used by Palestinian militants. They are named after Sheik Izz al-Din Al-Kassam, a Palestinian leader of the armed resistance during the British Mandate, before Israel became a state in 1948.

A few hours before the firing of the rockets, two Palestinian gunmen wearing civilian clothes and driving a Mazda pulled up outside the Israeli Army Southern Command headquarters in Beersheba and opened fire on a street.

Two female soldiers, ages 18 and 20, were killed, and five people, including soldiers buying snacks at a nearby bakery, were wounded. The gunmen fired six ammunition clips from their automatic weapons before a police officer killed one with a pistol and a soldier killed the other with an M-16 rifle.

Police said one of the gunmen had explosives strapped to his body. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.

Early today, Israeli tanks entered the West Bank city of Nablus and surrounded a hotly contested Jewish shrine that Israel had abandoned one month after the current uprising began. They pulled out after less than two hours.

It was the second time in as many days that the Israelis had entered Nablus, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. Tanks, soldiers and armored personnel carriers had entered another part of the city yesterday and seized an apartment building.

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