Israeli army strikes Gaza cell

factional fighting continues

May 20, 2007|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli army struck a three-member Palestinian rocket-launching cell near Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip yesterday, first with tank shells and then from the air, an army spokesman said.

Residents said that the three were shepherds and that three other people had been wounded, Reuters reported.

Hours later, the Palestinian faction Hamas claimed responsibility for firing an anti-tank missile at an Israeli army bulldozer that was accompanying tanks stationed in Gaza, close to the border with Israel. Two soldiers were slightly injured, the army spokesman said. It was the first time Hamas struck at the Israeli soldiers, who moved a few hundred yards into Gaza on Thursday.

The two events represented an escalation by each side.

Inside Gaza, factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah entered its second week, despite the declaration of an internal cease-fire by political leaders yesterday afternoon - the fifth such declaration in the past week.

Israeli tanks moved inside Gaza on Thursday in response to days of heavy rocket fire on Israel, but yesterday was the first time those tanks fired shells at a rocket-launching cell, the army spokesman said. In the past few days, some tank shells have been fired into open areas as warning shots, and yesterday, the army fired artillery shells empty of explosives into Gaza "for calibration purposes," said the army spokesman, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

He said that the army had no intention of using live artillery "at this point" but that preparations were being made in case. Generally, artillery shells carry a more powerful payload than tank shells.

Although the Israelis have used airstrikes in the past week that residents say have killed some civilians, the army says it has been reluctant to fire shells into Gaza because of the higher risk of inaccurate fire leading to civilian casualties.

The army spokesman said that before this week, no tank or artillery shells had been fired into Gaza since November, when an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire in Gaza took effect. That month, at least 18 Palestinian civilians, most from one family, were killed by Israeli shells that missed their target and hit a row of houses in Beit Hanoun.

The militant cell that was the target yesterday was using an abandoned Palestinian security force base and had fired at least one of three rockets that landed in Israel yesterday morning, the spokesman said. The rockets landed in and around the Israeli border town of Sderot, causing damage and a fire in a field, but no casualties.

According to Palestinian news media, medical officials said that the Palestinian who was killed in the airstrike was a civilian, and residents identified him as a shepherd. Three other civilians were wounded in the Israeli strike; one later died, the medical officials said. The Israeli army spokesman questioned what a shepherd would have been doing near a police base while militants were firing rockets and said the army had identified the man who was hit as being a member of the cell.

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