Israeli helicopters kill at least 2 amid Gaza crackdown

Army steps up attacks and targeting of militants ahead of Israeli pullback

March 17, 2004|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Israeli helicopter gunships fired missiles into a slum building in Gaza City at dusk yesterday, killing at least two members of the radical group Islamic Jihad, wounding more than a dozen bystanders and inaugurating what could be a prolonged and wide-ranging Israeli offensive against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Before dawn today, at least two more Palestinians were killed when Israeli tanks and armored bulldozers swept into the volatile town of Rafah, in southern Gaza. The army said Israeli forces fired on gunmen who were trying to plant a bomb in the path of the Israeli vehicles.

The air attack came less than four hours after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security Cabinet, made up of a small group of top advisers and ministers, authorized a sustained military operation in the Gaza Strip to retaliate for dual suicide bombings Sunday at the bustling Israeli seaport of Ashdod, which killed 10 port workers.

The streets of Gaza City and adjoining refugee camps emptied swiftly as night fell, with people hurrying home from work and school.

A major Israeli strike in response to the Ashdod attack had been expected. However, Sharon - himself a lifelong military man - had waited for Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to return from abroad and present the views of senior generals before deciding what to do.

At the security Cabinet meeting, Mofaz advocated a series of "surgical strikes" against Palestinian militants believed to be responsible for planning or carrying out attacks, according to accounts of Israeli officials present. They said the military campaign, including ground and air strikes, could last weeks.

Yesterday's and today's strikes marked the latest blows traded in what has been a rapidly escalating struggle in the Gaza Strip in the weeks since Sharon unexpectedly announced that Israel was weighing a plan to withdraw from the enclave, seized from Egypt in the 1967 Middle East war. About 7,500 Jewish settlers live among more than 1.2 million Palestinians in the densely populated and desperately poor territory.

The suicide bombings in Ashdod, which Palestinian militants and Israeli security officials said had been intended as a "mega-attack" targeting the port's fuel and chemical tanks, galvanized calls in Israel for strikes against Gaza-based militant groups.

The assailants, who came from the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, were the first Palestinian suicide bombers of the current conflict known to have made their way out of fenced-in Gaza and into Israel proper to stage an attack.

"The first course of action following the horrible attack in Ashdod and the even more horrible attack which could have happened ... is to strike the entire Hamas leadership," said Cabinet member Yisrael Katz.

In recent weeks, the main militant groups - Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia loosely associated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction - have been teaming up to carry out attacks, an arrangement that militant leaders say will continue.

Israel and the Palestinians are eager to paint each other as the defeated party should Israel proceed with its withdrawal from Gaza. The militant groups promise even bolder attacks, and Israeli forces have been staging more and more frequent incursions into the area's crowded refugee camps and neighborhoods in pursuit of militant leaders.

Before yesterday's air strike in the Nasser neighborhood of Gaza City, witnesses reported hearing the roar overhead of F-16 fighter planes, commonly used by Israel to mask the sound of approaching attack helicopters. Some people on the street sought shelter in alleyways and doorways in expectation of a missile attack.

"I heard a big explosion and saw the house full of white smoke," said taxi driver Saad Madhoun, who helped ferry the injured to a nearby hospital.

Hamas leaders, who were targeted by Israel in raids over the summer and early fall, were reported to have gone into hiding.

Hamas issued a statement saying that Israel would pay dearly for any strikes against Palestinian civilians or Hamas members in Gaza.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.