- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli troops blew up an empty eight-story building in the Gaza Strip yesterday in response to two attacks by Palestinian militants — a rocket barrage that killed an Israeli toddler and a blast that ripped through an army outpost.

A rocket in Sderot, a working-class Israeli town near the Gaza Strip, landed just yards from two nursery schools, killing a 3-year-old boy and a 49-year-old man. It was the first time in nearly four years of fighting that Israelis were killed by rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

Several tanks rolled into northern Gaza Strip late yesterday, the precursor to what Israeli security officials said could be a prolonged operation in the area to prevent Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli border towns.

Despite the surge in violence, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he remains determined to go ahead with his planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Addressing lawmakers, Mr. Sharon pledged to speed up the evacuation of settlers who are ready to leave voluntarily.

Mr. Sharon met yesterday with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and other senior security officials after the attacks to plan a response.

A few hours later, several tanks drove into northern Gaza Strip, the area from which yesterday’s rockets were fired. Israeli troops repeatedly have raided the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun, near Sderot, to stop rockets.

Soldiers also destroyed the empty eight-story building overlooking an army outpost attacked by Palestinian militants late Sunday. The demolition came after soldiers razed 15 nearby Palestinian homes, leaving about 60 people homeless.

In Sunday’s outpost attack, militants dug a 1,000-foot-long tunnel and detonated hundreds of pounds of explosives under the outpost, killing a soldier and wounding five. After the blast, two Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire and two more were fatally shot early yesterday in the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Sharon’s “unilateral disengagement” plan calls for the evacuation of all Gaza Strip settlements — where about 7,500 Israelis live among 1.3 million Palestinians — and four West Bank enclaves by September 2005.

Mr. Sharon has said his plan will improve Israel’s security by reducing friction with the Palestinians. But more violence is expected ahead of the pullout, which is to be completed by the end of 2005.

Mr. Sharon told a closed-door meeting of legislators that he remained committed to the withdrawal.

Participants said Mr. Sharon told them that he has decided to speed up the voluntary evacuation of settlers by making advance payments on compensation available in the near future, ahead of a previous August target.

In Sderot, anger was at a fever pitch after the rocket attack, which came as parents dropped off their children at the Lilach and Yasmin nursery schools.

The victims were identified as 3-year-old Afik Zahavi, who was on his way to nursery school, and Mordechai Yosopov, 49. Afik’s mother, Ruth, was hospitalized in critical condition, and 10 other persons suffered minor injuries.

The militant group Hamas took responsibility for the attack, and Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades said they cooperated in blowing up the outpost. The militants said they were avenging leaders and key activists killed by Israel in recent months.

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