Israeli military attacks militants, killing 6 in Gaza Strip, West Bank

Palestinian official faults `escalation' of violence

Hamas vows revenge

July 16, 2005|By Henry Chu | Henry Chu,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Israeli forces killed six Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank with missile strikes and gunfire yesterday, showing a willingness to resume targeted assassinations that had been largely on hold since February.

The airstrikes, carried out in daylight, were aimed at members of Hamas in retaliation against the militant group's rocket and mortar attacks in the Gaza Strip, which resulted in the death of a 22-year-old Israeli woman Thursday and more injuries yesterday.

Hamas immediately vowed revenge, sparking fears of a return to the near-constant violence that engulfed the two sides before the main armed Palestinian groups agreed to an unofficial cease-fire with Israel in February.

The upsurge in attacks also raised concerns that next month's scheduled evacuation of Jewish settlements and Israeli military posts in Gaza might be disrupted. Israel cited the pullout as one of the reasons for its offensive and blamed Palestinian officials for not clamping down on militants, who unleashed a suicide bombing and a barrage of rockets in the past few days.

"They failed the test," Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said of the Palestinian Authority. "We said if this continues, we will have no other choice [but] to exercise our right of self-defense, which means we will use any military action to stop the fire."

Gissin insisted that the withdrawal would take place "under any circumstance" and that it was not too late for coordination with the Palestinian side on how it would be done.

Palestinian Authority officials said they had taken steps to rein in Hamas, at the risk of violent division among Palestinians, and called the Israeli "escalation" counterproductive.

"The Palestinian Authority is trying to maintain the rule of law and order in Gaza and the unity of the authority," Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said. The Israeli strikes "will absolutely torpedo the Sharm el-Sheik understandings," he said, referring to the informal truce reached at a summit in Egypt.

Prospects for a smooth, collaborative Israeli evacuation of Gaza dimmed with the steady unraveling this week of the truce. Raids by the Israeli army and attacks by Islamic extremists have left at least six Israelis and eight Palestinians dead since Tuesday, one of the highest tolls in months.

To try to prevent the renewed strife from derailing the Gaza pullout, officials in Washington announced that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would travel to the Middle East next week to urge restraint. It will be her third trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories since becoming the Bush administration's top diplomat six months ago.

The Israeli offensive yesterday entailed 10 air raids within 24 hours, beginning under cover of darkness early in the morning with four missile strikes targeting what the Israeli army described as Hamas weapons labs and storage depots inside the Gaza Strip. No casualties were reported in those strikes.

But three additional attacks in the late afternoon and early evening had human targets. Israel renounced what it calls "pinpointed killings" in February when Palestinian militants agreed to end hostilities, but said it reserved the right to go after "ticking bombs," meaning anyone poised to execute an attack.

A military spokeswoman said that four Hamas fighters killed in a pre-emptive airstrike on their van in densely populated Gaza City were senior weapons makers on their way to launch rockets and mortars at nearby Israeli towns and Jewish settlements. Twenty-four hours of heavy shelling starting Thursday killed one Israeli woman, lightly wounded two others, destroyed cars and homes, and set a kindergarten ablaze.

A second Israeli operation hit two "wanted terrorists" in Salfit, a West Bank town outside the large Jewish settlement of Ariel, the spokeswoman said. It was unclear whether the two militants were considered imminent threats. But Gissin indicated that Israel no longer considered itself strictly bound by that criterion.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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