- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2002

JERUSALEM Israeli jets and helicopters pounded the Gaza Strip yesterday in retaliation for a Palestinian rocket attack that a senior Israeli security source said portended an ominous stage in the fighting even a potential chemical attack.
At least 40 persons were wounded in the Israeli raid on a security compound in the Gaza Strip, four of them critically, hospital officials said.
Though Israel has hit Palestinian security bases before, its warplanes usually strike at night. Yesterday's attacks began at midday, when the compound was bustling with people.
Israeli officials said the sustained assault was meant to warn Palestinians against further launchings of the Qassam-2 rocket, two of which slammed into the Jewish state Sunday.
A senior Israeli security source described the rocket, made by the Islamic militant Hamas group, as a weapon that could exacerbate Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
"We take this very seriously. It's a serious escalation in the fighting," he said.
Israel's military is vastly stronger and better equipped than Palestinian security forces and militant groups, which have automatic weapons, bombs, some light anti-tank weapons and homemade rockets.
Israel uses tanks, warplanes and laser-guided missiles against Palestinians.
But the Jewish state is concerned that Palestinians could terrorize the civilian population in major cities with their Qassam-2 missile and use it as leverage to oust troops from the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinians said Israel was using the rocket launch as an excuse to justify an all-out assault on the West Bank and Gaza.
"More bombings lead to more resistance," said Imad al-Fallouji, a member of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's administration.
Yesterday's attack sent Gaza residents scurrying out of buildings and into the streets to avoid injury. It was the second raid in 24 hours, and it caused damage to homes surrounding the compound, known as Saraya.
The Israeli security source, briefing a few members of the foreign press in Tel Aviv on Sunday's attack, said Hamas had managed to pack about 12 pounds of explosives in the rocket's warhead but also was experimenting with a chemical payload.
"Hamas believes it's able to load them with nonconventional or poisonous warheads. I'm not sure they can, but they believe they can," he said.
The rocket, which is about 5 feet in length and has a range of five miles, is a more advanced version of the Qassam-1, which Hamas fired at Israel several times last year. It is manufactured in secret metal shops in the West Bank and Gaza.
The group, whose members have killed scores of Israelis in suicide bombings, has said it also is developing a Qassam-3 and Qassam-4 larger rockets with greater range.
"All [Jewish] settlements and many cities will come under Qassam fire. Settlers should leave before they face the first strikes of Qassam missiles," Hamas said on its Web site.
Israel captured eight Qassam-2 rockets last week as Palestinians tried to transport them from one West Bank town to another.
Israel's major cities, including Tel Aviv and Haifa, are a few miles from the West Bank.
During the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq fired dozens of missiles at Israel, which, under American pressure, refrained from retaliating.
Some Israeli officials say that a mild response to the Qassam attacks would invite attacks from Arab countries such as Iran and Iraq, which have much more sophisticated missiles.
The Saraya compound serves as the headquarters for Palestinian military intelligence and guard units, but it is also a jail where some militants had been locked up. The Israeli bombs smashed the upper floor of Saraya and set part of the complex ablaze.
Hundreds of Palestinians gathered outside the compound after the Israeli raids, demanding that jailers open cell doors and release the inmates.
Police clashed with the protesters, some of whom threw stones and bottles at the troops. Witnesses said several of the inmates were set free.
Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Israel's defense minister, said the Palestinians bore responsibility for the injuries inflicted on civilians in the air raids.
"Escalation is gaining momentum. Certainly because of the security problem alone we are obliged to take a series of measures, which are sometimes hurtful to innocent people," he said.
Israelis have died in Palestinian shootings and other attacks almost every day in the past week.
On Sunday, two Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a cafe near an army base in the southern town of Beersheba, killing two female soldiers. Bystanders fatally shot the gunmen.


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