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Gaza battles intensify conflict

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2008

ASHKELON, Israel — Fighting between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza spurred rioting in the West Bank yesterday, as leaders on both sides threatened to escalate hostilities amid continued exchanges of rocket fire between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Another 21 Palestinians were killed yesterday, bringing the toll since Wednesday to 109, according to Palestinian medical officials and militant groups. Earlier today, Israeli aircraft struck new targets in the Gaza Strip, killing two militants.

The prospect of spreading mass demonstrations in the Palestinian territories threatened to undermine Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who suspended peace talks with Israel a day earlier.

"The Zionists will not enjoy security in all the colonies around Gaza as long as their crimes continue," said Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas' military wing.

Israeli attacks yesterday in the Gaza Strip included the empty offices of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

"It must be clear. The state of Israel has no intention of halting counterterrorism actions even for a second," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a Cabinet meeting yesterday. "If somebody thinks that by extending the rockets' range, he will succeed in deterring us from our activity, he is gravely mistaken."

But Israel's stepped up military operation in Gaza has so far failed to slow down the rockets, as dozens more were fired into southern Israel yesterday.

The onslaught included three Katyusha rockets that slammed into Ashkelon, a coastal city of 120,000 that is the largest population center militants have succeeded in reaching.

Ashkelon residents, previously out of range of primitive Qassam rockets, are adjusting to a new early warning system like the one in use in Sderot — a psychological blow that has highlighted for residents how the city is now within the circle of war with Gaza.

The targeting of a major Israeli city, an urban area that includes strategic installations like a power station and a water desalination plant, triggered Israel's harsh response in Gaza. For the first time, missiles also fell on the Israeli city of Netivot.

In a move that could portend another spike in non-combatant casualties, Israel is mulling the shelling of areas in the Gaza Strip where rockets are being fired.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel might order a broader incursion into Gaza aimed at weakening Hamas and "in the right circumstances bringing it down."

On Saturday, the death toll exceeded 50 — half of which the Palestinians said were civilians — in the highest day of casualties since the start of the Palestinian uprising in 2000.

Stone-throwing demonstrations erupted in the West Bank in solidarity with Gaza, from the edge of Ramallah to Bethlehem and Hebron. One Palestinian in Hebron was killed in the melee, and Israel said some of its soldiers suffered injuries.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.