- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2004

TEL AVIV — Palestinian militants detonated more than a ton of explosives underneath an Israeli military outpost just outside the Gaza Strip yesterday, killing at least four soldiers and injuring 10 in the first major strike since the death of Yasser Arafat in November.

The attack, which struck a checkpoint at the entrance to the international crossing with Egypt, could trigger a destabilizing Israeli retaliation ahead of Palestinian elections next month and a planned Israeli withdrawal by mid-2005.

Hamas and a militant offshoot of the ruling Fatah party, the Fatah Hawks, claimed responsibility. Palestinian gunmen ambushed soldiers immediately after the explosion, leaving one of the militants dead in the exchange of fire.

Israeli helicopter gunships struck back late last night, firing rockets at targets in Gaza City. A metal workshop and a house were destroyed, but there were no reports of casualties.

The violence shattered nearly two months of relative calm in the Palestinian territories, a break that contributed to a smooth transition of power in Mr. Arafat’s aftermath and buoyed hopes for a renewal of U.S.-backed peace talks.

The late-afternoon blast came from a tunnel burrowed about 540 feet from the flash point border town of Rafah. The explosion was followed by mortar and machine-gun fire from Palestinian militants positioned close to the military outpost, an army spokesman said.

“It’s a very large and well-coordinated attack at a soft point, namely an international crossing,” said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an army spokesman. “The terrorists are intent on exploiting points where there are contacts between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.”

With the night sky lit up by flares fired by the Israeli air force, army rescue teams searched for hours through the rubble of the outpost to locate a soldier trapped underneath. The rescue operation proceeded amid gunfire from nearby militants.

Rafah’s proximity to the Egyptian border has allowed Palestinians to dig tunnels used to smuggle weapons underneath Israel’s heavily fortified outposts.

Despite all the subterranean channels uncovered and destroyed by the army, yesterday’s attack was a reminder for Israel that the Rafah tunnel builders and the militants who fund the smuggling remain elusive.

Spokesmen for the militants said the strike was in revenge for the killing of civilians in recent Israeli army offensives in the Gaza Strip. An unidentified militant told the Associated Press the offensive was in retaliation for the death of Mr. Arafat, who many Palestinians believe was poisoned by Israel.

But spokesmen for the militants acknowledged that the attack was in the works for some time, saying the tunnel was constructed over a period of four months. Hamas and the Fatah Hawks released videotaped footage of recruits waving to viewers as they loaded the tunnel with explosives, a tactic of psychological warfare used by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

“This operation is a high-quality operation that struck a blow at the Zionists,” a masked spokesman from the Fatah Hawks told Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite TV network.

In the past week, mortar fire from Palestinian militants has injured Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip and Israel’s air force launched a failed assassination attempt on the leader of a militant Palestinian faction.

Hamas’ representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, rejected calls for a halt to attacks on Israel and threatened new, unspecified types of retaliation.

“The talk about a truce or a cease-fire is pure speculation and illusion. The enemy is still occupying our land,” he said.

The latest spate of violence could interfere with the presidential-election campaign of PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the favorite to replace Mr. Arafat, who has come out against attacks by Palestinian militants.

Although Mr. Abbas has spent the past few weeks on state visits, Israeli spokesman assailed him for not reining in terror at home. Israeli retaliation would hurt Mr. Abbas’ public approval and doom prospects for a cease-fire among Palestinian militias.

The attack may also complicate the new detente between Israel and Egypt. The Israeli Cabinet approved a release of Palestinian security prisoners yesterday as a gesture to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but the strike at Rafah will strengthen the voices of politicians opposed to the amnesty.

“Israel shouldn’t make any gestures until Egypt steps up the effort on its side of the Gaza border to uncover weapons-smuggling rings,” said Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defense committee.

Just a few months ago, Israel’s army shut the Rafah crossing for three weeks — leaving thousands of Palestinians stranded in Egypt. Last week, soldiers uncovered a similar tunnel near the Karni commercial inspection point between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

In response to the deaths of Israeli soldiers near Rafah earlier this year, Israel’s army temporarily reoccupied some of the town’s neighborhoods to find tunnels and militants. The weeklong operation resulted in home demolitions and dozens of casualties.

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