2 children die in rocket strike by militants on Israeli town

Military kills 2 teenagers, several other Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank

September 30, 2004|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - A volley of crude Kassam rockets fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip slammed into the southern Israeli town of Sderot yesterday, killing two children and wounding more than two dozen people on the eve of a Jewish holiday.

The rocket strike came as Israeli troops and armor were in the midst of large-scale raid in northern Gaza - an operation that was launched to halt such attacks against Israeli communities close to the tightly guarded border with the Palestinian territory.

Four Palestinians, two of them teenagers, were killed by Israeli troops in or near the sprawling Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, and at least three other Palestinians died in scattered violence elsewhere in Gaza and the West Bank.

Word of the attack in Sderot came as Israelis were ushering in the Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles, which is marked by family gatherings in small huts built on balconies and in backyards. Many people ducked away from celebrations, transfixed by television footage of shouting rescuers, bloodied victims and weeping onlookers.

Rescuers said one of the rockets hit a home, killing a 2-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy. A second Kassam fell in an alleyway filled with passers-by, spraying shrapnel in all directions.

Israel has been on high alert through the season of holy days that began this month with Rosh Hashana and extends into next week.

The West Bank and Gaza have been closed off since before the start of the holidays, but last week, a suicide bomber made her way to the outskirts of Jerusalem. Two paramilitary police officers were killed when they confronted her at a checkpoint and she triggered her explosives.

The militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the Kassam firing. Its guerrillas routinely use the fields and orchards of northern Gaza, as well as the outskirts of the Jabaliya camp, as launch pads for the homemade projectiles.

Because the firings are carried out in hit-and-run fashion, even the heavy Israeli troop presence rarely halts the launches.

Even though Palestinian militants fire rockets in the direction of Israeli towns almost every day, the primitive weapons cannot be aimed with any degree of accuracy and rarely cause serious damage or casualties.

But an Israeli toddler and a middle-aged man were killed June 28 when a rocket fell outside a nursery school in Sderot. They were the first Kassam fatalities of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now entering its fifth year.

The Israeli military response to yesterday's incident could be harsh. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Sycamore Ranch is only a few miles from Sderot, and he tends to take a very personal view of attacks on the town.

Israeli media reported that at a Cabinet meeting several weeks ago, Sharon pounded a fist on the table and asked military chiefs why Israel shouldn't respond to rocket fire with artillery strikes against northern Gaza. Attorney General Menahem Mazuz noted that indiscriminate artillery fire toward a densely populated area would constitute a war crime, the reports said.

Kassam attacks pose a major political problem for Sharon as he tries to move ahead with his initiative to withdraw from Gaza by late next year. His opponents point to firings as a sign that, should Israel pull out, Hamas would have a free hand in staging cross-border assaults.

Israeli intelligence officials say the Palestinian militants are acquiring more sophisticated rocket and missile technology.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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