Six dead in attack on Israeli army post

Arafat's Gaza offices struck in response

February 20, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank attacked an Israeli military post last night, stormed a building there and killed six Israeli soldiers. The shootings followed by a few hours a series of Israeli army raids that killed eight Palestinians.

The deadly violence continued early today as Israeli aircraft and ships attacked Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's offices on the Gaza coast, killing four guards, witnesses said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was scheduled to convene his security cabinet today to plan new military responses to a wave of recent Palestinian attacks. Last night's raid on the checkpoint west of Ramallah could amplify calls for Sharon to oust Arafat and reoccupy the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Sharon has said he will not topple Arafat, but it is unclear what actions he is considering beyond the current strategy of bombing Palestinian government buildings, assassinating militants and sending troops into Palestinians cities.

Details of the attack on the soldiers were sketchy last night, but officials said it appeared to be well-planned and carried out by up to four Palestinians with assault rifles. The Palestinians escaped.

The soldiers were members of an engineering corps and had started their tour at the post called Ein Arik hours before the attack. Some were apparently caught off guard inside the building.

Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an Army spokesman, called the incident "disastrous" but refused further comment. The number of casualties was among the highest for a single day since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising.

The Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militant wing of Arafat's Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for the attack. Fatah's West Bank leader, Marwan Barghouti, had said Monday that attacks against Israel would increase.

Earlier yesterday, Israeli military strikes killed eight Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in response to the deaths Monday of four Israelis. The Israeli army said the strikes, including a missile attack on an office used by a militant group in a Gaza refugee camp, were "in response to the wave of murderous terrorist attacks that occurred in recent days."

The missile attack occurred during a shift change for school children in the Jabalya refugee camp, a squalid community of 90,000 Palestinians. An Apache helicopter hovered overhead for a few seconds and fired a single missile at a steep angle, hitting an office used by the militant group Hamas on the ground floor of a three-story apartment building.

The missile left a 6-foot-wide, 4-foot-high hole in the concrete-block wall and killed two Hamas members inside. A dozen people were hurt on the street outside, including a 10-year-old girl.

"I heard the helicopter, but I didn't think it would actually fire here," said Abdul Rahman Salah, 30, the owner of the apartment building and the uncle of the injured girl, Inas Salah.

"We never thought the Israelis would do this," he said. "This is a civilian office. There are civilians all around here."

The Israeli army said last night that it regretted wounding civilians but blamed militant groups, saying they put civilians at risk by locating offices in residential areas.

In another Israeli attack yesterday, tanks and soldiers fought their way into the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, where Palestinian officials said two unarmed women were killed during heavy exchanges of gunfire.

A few hours later, two Palestinian gunmen infiltrated the Morag settlement in the Gaza Strip. Israeli soldiers shot and killed one gunman and three civilians, according to Palestinians and the Israeli rights group B'Tselem.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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