- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2001

GAZA — Israeli forces seized a square-mile parcel of Palestinian-controlled land, rocketed police stations and established checkpoints throughout the Gaza Strip yesterday, only to pull out before days end in the face of intense pressure from the United States and other allies.
The withdrawal last night was presented by Israeli media as an embarrassment for the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, though officials insisted they had never intended for the operation to last more than 24 hours. That claim was undercut by a senior Israeli commander who said earlier in the day that the troops might be there for "days, weeks, months."
Israel ordered the assault following a mortar attack from Gaza on the working-class town of Sderot, located about 2 and 1/2 miles east of Gaza. The town, located near Mr. Sharons sheep ranch, is a strong source of political support for the prime minister.
Palestinians have been firing mortars into Israeli communities for months, but the attack on Sderot was the deepest yet inside Israeli territory.
Israel responded swiftly, attacking Palestinian police stations across the Gaza Strip, killing one policeman and injuring another 36 persons. In Gaza City, wailing children and other residents ran into the streets when rockets punctured the walls of a police station in the Rimal neighborhood.
Troops also overran Palestinian security posts in the area of Gaza nearest to Sderot, and used bulldozers to flatten orange groves outside the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun, two miles from the site of the mortar attack.
One Beit Hanoun resident, who gave his name as Jamil, returned to his home yesterday, packed his belongings and went to stay with relatives far from the confrontation line. "Even policemen ran off, and they have guns, " Jamil said, carrying clothes in a plastic trash bag. "Im not armed, so how can I stay?"
Other Israeli measures, including severe travel restrictions on Gazas 1.2 million Palestinians, were still in place. Israels closure of main roads in the tiny Strip effectively severed Gaza into three isolated sections.
Denied road access to school and jobs by Israeli tanks, many people resorted to using the Mediterranean beachfront to make their way. The strand was filled with people walking and riding donkey carts or tractors, including young women in head scarves, some carrying schoolbooks.
Elsewhere in Gaza yesterday, Israeli soldiers shot dead a 15-year-old Palestinian on the border with Israel, raising the Palestinian death toll in seven months of fighting to 381. Seventy-one Israelis also have died in the violence.
"These raids are not just an escalation, theyre dirty, " said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
"Theyre trying to make our people kneel."
Hamas, a militant Islamic group better known for its suicide bombings in Israel, claimed responsibility for the mortar firing, though Israel said Mr. Arafats security forces were complicit in the attack, either by aiding the group or by looking the other way.
Brig. Gen. Saeb al-Ajes, a gray-haired Palestinian police commander, denied the charge but said Hamas was irresponsible for carrying out the attack.
"What strategic value is there in firing mortars on an Israeli town?" asked Gen. Ajes.

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