JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday that he had authorized the military to step up its efforts against armed militants in the Gaza Strip amid what he termed inaction by the new Palestinian leadership.
The announcement came two days after Sharon stunned Palestinian officials by ordering his government to cut off contacts with the Palestinian Authority after an attack on a Gaza border crossing in which six Israelis died. Three Palestinian groups claimed responsibility for that attack.
Israeli analysts said Sharon was seeking to pressure Mahmoud Abbas, the newly elected president of the Palestinian Authority, to move forcefully to halt rocket attacks and other assaults by Palestinian fighters in the volatile coastal strip. Abbas, who was sworn in Saturday, has urged an end to armed resistance but militants have defied him.
"Despite the change in the Palestinian leadership, we note that those at the top have not begun any action whatsoever to halt terrorism. The situation cannot continue," Sharon said yesterday before the weekly closed-door Cabinet meeting.
"The political leadership has instructed that any action - any action - be taken that is necessary to halt terrorism," he added.
Palestinian officials said an increase in military action by Israel would serve only to accelerate the cycle of violence that has rocked Gaza for months. They called for a return to the negotiating table.
"This is a series of wrongs Mr. Sharon has committed since Friday," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat. Abbas "offered an olive branch yesterday. [Sharon is] responding by unleashing the bullets and the guns."
The policy-making body of Abbas' Palestine Liberation Organization appealed yesterday for an end to armed attacks. The PLO's executive committee called on fighters "to stop all military activities that could harm our national interests and provide excuses to the Israeli position that wants to undermine Palestinian stability."
Violence continued yesterday in the Gaza Strip, where militants fired at least four primitive rockets at communities in southern Israel. No injuries were reported.
In southern Gaza, a Palestinian mother and her son were killed by Israeli military fire as they stood on the roof of their house in Khan Yunis, according to witnesses and Palestinian medical officials. The dead, identified as Fadeh Arram, 52, and son Abdullah, 28, were shot after militants fired mortars in their neighborhood at a Jewish settlement nearby. The woman's husband was wounded, according to reports.
Israeli military sources said troops opened fire in separate instances at people they believed were preparing to launch a rocket or acting suspiciously. It was not immediately clear whether either of those shootings was the one that resulted in the deaths of the mother and son.
Earlier, a Palestinian militant was killed by Israeli troops near a road leading to the Karni crossing, the main entry point for cargo shipments between Israel and the Gaza Strip, which was targeted in the deadly attack Thursday night.
Israeli troops ended a raid in Zeitoun, a neighborhood of Gaza City where fighting killed five Palestinians a day earlier.
Abbas to visit Gaza
Palestinian officials said Abbas, a relative moderate whose election last week fanned hopes for a break in more than four years of conflict, planned to go to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday to resume talks with militant factions.
Abbas hopes to get the armed groups - including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is affiliated with his Fatah movement - to declare a cease-fire. So far, his efforts have failed to produce an agreement.
Israeli officials want Abbas to use force, if necessary, to curb the activities of militant groups - a potentially incendiary step that he appears unlikely to take.
Israeli officials said Palestinian security officers responsible for safeguarding the Palestinian side of the Karni crossing were negligent, if not directly involved, in last week's attack. They have called upon the Palestinians to investigate the incident, during which militants detonated a bomb and charged into the cargo terminal, spraying gunfire at truck drivers and civilian port workers.
Israel later said it was closing all three Gaza crossings into Israel and Egypt to Palestinians indefinitely.
Israel plans to withdraw Jewish settlers and soldiers from Gaza this year and does not want to appear to have been chased out. Militants, though, have stepped up their assaults in hopes of claiming an armed victory over Israel.
Palestinian officials said Sharon's decision to suspend contacts was premature - a day before Abbas was to be sworn in as the successor to Yasser Arafat.
Egyptian officials appealed for patience during a meeting in Cairo yesterday with Israeli diplomats, Ron Prosor, director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, told Israel Radio.