Israel launches retaliatory airstrikes in Gaza

Violence further shakes fragile five-month truce

July 15, 2005|By Henry Chu | Henry Chu,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Israel launched a series of missile strikes in the Gaza Strip early today after rockets fired by Palestinian militants killed an Israeli woman.

No casualties were reported in the missile strikes, which the Israeli military said were aimed at weapons labs belonging to the militant group Hamas. Witnesses said the targets appeared to include a pro-Hamas charity, a cemetery used by militants for staging rocket attacks and a car carrying several Hamas members.

The missile strikes - four within an hour - came days after the first Palestinian suicide bombing since February, an attack that killed five Israelis outside a mall and triggered Israeli incursions into West Bank towns in search of extremists.

The bombing, rocket attacks and missile strikes have frayed an informal cease-fire between armed Palestinian groups and Israeli forces, and cast a cloud over Israel's preparations for clearing out Jewish settlements and army forces from Gaza and the northern West Bank next month.

The missile strikes were an apparent response to a barrage of shelling by Hamas militants in Gaza yesterday. One rocket killed a young woman in the community of Netiv Haasara in Israel, the first such death in months.

Hours later, Israeli soldiers sealed off sections of a key highway in the Gaza Strip, cutting the seaside territory into three parts in a prelude to the airstrikes, which began shortly after midnight.

Missiles struck two buildings in the Khan Yunis refugee camp that the Israeli military said were being used as ammunition storage and weapons manufacturing depots. But witnesses said the intended target seemed to be a graveyard from which militants frequently launch rockets at the nearby Jewish settlement of Gush Katif.

Helicopter gunships also fired on another weapons lab in central Gaza and on a Hamas office in northern Gaza, the Israeli military said.

But residents contradicted those accounts somewhat, saying that the strike in northern Gaza hit a Hamas-associated charitable foundation, while the raid in central Gaza targeted a group of Hamas fighters riding in a car. The militants managed to scramble out of the vehicle before the missile hit, witnesses said.

The airstrikes reflected growing Israeli displeasure with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, whom Israel accuses of failing to take strong action against militias such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the group behind Tuesday's suicide bombing in Netanya.

"Israel has lost six people this past week to terror," David Baker, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "If the PA does not take the necessary steps to end terror, Israel will."

Yet a major, sustained Israeli air and ground offensive in Gaza is unlikely, because Sharon's government and the Israeli army are reluctant to upset the fragile informal truce by Palestinian militants in the run-up to next month's planned settlement evacuation.

There was speculation that yesterday's shelling by Hamas was rooted in internal Palestinian politics. Abbas, whose authority Hamas scoffs at, was in Gaza overnight yesterday for meetings with Palestinian security officials, which analysts say may have prompted Hamas to launch attacks in defiance of the period of calm he helped broker.

Tension between the official security forces and Hamas boiled over when Palestinian police fired on Hamas members returning from a rocket attack. Seven people, including at least four militants, were injured in the ensuing shootout, witnesses and Hamas said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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