Israeli retaliation urged after rocket attack

Officials call for military response after 40 soldiers wounded in Palestinian attack

September 12, 2007|By Joel Greenberg | Joel Greenberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM -- An early-morning rocket attack from the Gaza Strip that wounded about 40 Israeli soldiers at an army base triggered calls in Israel for a strong military response yesterday, but officials said a large-scale offensive is unlikely.

The injury toll was the highest in Israel from a single Palestinian rocket attack. The militant groups Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees claimed responsibility for the strike that hit a training base at Zikim, north of the Gaza-Israel border.

A rocket slammed into an empty tent about 2 a.m., and shrapnel tore through neighboring tents where soldiers were sleeping, wounding dozens of recruits, three of them seriously, the army said.

At least 35 soldiers were still hospitalized last night, and one was in critical condition, a military spokeswoman said. All the wounded were new conscripts at the end of their basic training.

Anxious parents of soldiers arrived at the gates of the Zikim base hours after the attack, demanding better protection for their sons. The crude rockets fired by Gaza militants are inaccurate, but they have been falling with regularity in areas of southern Israel bordering the Gaza Strip.

After the rocket attack, a missile or shell fired by Israeli forces hit a home in Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip, wounding four members of a Palestinian family, including a 17-year-old girl who was seriously injured, hospital officials said. The army said it hit the site from which the rocket was launched at Zikim.

The Palestinian attack prompted calls from some Israeli politicians and government officials for a tough military response.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter urged the government to "create deterrence," and Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party, urged a broad ground operation to seize areas from where the rockets are launched.

A meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and military and security chiefs ended with no authorization of a large-scale offensive, though officials said airstrikes on militants could be stepped up.

Despite the pressure on Olmert to order a broad offensive against militants in Gaza, his leeway for military action is restricted by accelerated diplomatic efforts to resume negotiations with the Palestinians.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected in the Middle East next week to prepare for a regional conference in November called by President Bush.

In Washington, the State Department denounced the Palestinian rocket attack but urged Israel to show restraint. "We would only counsel - in this case Israel, which has suffered injuries and losses as a result of attacks - to take into consideration the effects of what they might do in self-defense on the overall political process," said spokesman Sean McCormack.

Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in a violent takeover in June, praised the rocket attack.

A spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, call it "a victory from God." Islamic Jihad followers celebrated in the streets, handing out candy to motorists.

Although Islamic Jihad has carried out much of the rocket firing from Gaza in recent weeks, Israeli officials say they hold Hamas responsible for the attacks.

"Gaza is totally controlled by Hamas. They have the ability to stop this and decided not to," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said at a news conference. "I think we have tools to do this, tools that are not only military."

Livni and other government officials have recently suggested that Israel cut fuel or power supplies to Gaza in response to rockets attacks in an effort to force Hamas to halt the firing. Discussions of such measures are planned for next week.

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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