Israelis press attack in Gaza Strip

10 Palestinians die in daylong fight

Hamas militants vow to strike deeper in Israel

October 03, 2004|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Israeli forces pressed ahead yesterday with one of the biggest offensives in the Gaza Strip in four years of fighting, killing 10 Palestinian militants in dawn-to-dusk gunbattles and airstrikes, according to officials from both sides.

But despite the presence of more than 2,000 Israeli soldiers and scores of armored vehicles in a six-mile strip of northern Gaza, fighters from the Islamic group Hamas held a rare news conference in the heart of the battle zone and pledged to mount rocket strikes against cities deeper inside Israel.

In the fourth day of the offensive, both sides fortified their positions around the crowded Jabalya refugee camp, focal point of the struggle. The Israelis rolled in armored reinforcements overnight, while Palestinian militants could be seen readying firing positions on top of slum buildings in the camp.

Fighters from Izzidin al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas, made an unusual public appearance at a mosque in the middle of Jabalya, declaring they would direct rocket fire at the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

The current Israeli offensive was triggered by volleys of crude homemade Kassam rockets aimed by Palestinian militants at the Negev desert town of Sderot, less than two miles from the heavily fortified border with Gaza. Four Israelis, three of them young children, have been killed in the rocket barrages since late June.

Ashkelon, a larger coastal city, is about eight miles north of Gaza. In the past, the militants have managed to hit only its industrial outskirts, but they claim their rocket technology is improving. Israeli intelligence has said so as well.

At the news conference, four men in green Hamas headbands, their faces swathed in scarves, sat at a table arrayed with grenades, rocket launchers and antitank shells. With the whir of Israeli helicopters clearly audible, they scoffed at the idea of Israeli forces being able to move freely in the half-mile-square camp, which is home to more than 100,000 Palestinians.

"They call this `Days of Reckoning,'" said one of the militants, deriding the code name for the Israeli military operation. "They'll see reckoning from us."

Both sides have staked considerable prestige on the outcome of this confrontation. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, even as he seeks to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza over the coming 15 months, wants to prove that the Israeli military can hit back hard whenever Palestinian militants strike inside Israel.

Among Palestinians, there is no consensus that the rocket attacks help their cause. Many residents lend strong support to Hamas and other groups, but blame the militants for bringing down the wrath of the Israeli army on their neighborhoods.

Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian prime minister, called on the militant groups yesterday to "think about the higher national interest and not give Israel excuses to continue the aggression against our people."

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, also present at a Cabinet meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah, called the Israeli offensive a "monstrous, criminal, inhumane attack."

In Israel, debate continued over the wisdom of launching an offensive in such a densely populated area of Gaza. The seaside territory is widely viewed by Israelis as a quagmire.

"Hamas has led us into a trap," former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio yesterday. "We should have avoided going into Gaza."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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