- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli forces retaliated today for a deadly attack by militants on a nearby Jewish settlement, blowing up three large, empty buildings in Gaza after evacuating 2,000 Palestinians from their homes.

Huge blasts rocked the area for miles around, sending plumes of black smoke and debris into the air, and damaging nearby structures. The Israelis conducted the operation as tensions rose once again in the three-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The developments, coupled with continued political uncertainty in the Palestinian leadership, pushed Mideast peace efforts further into the background.

Israeli bombers targeted three unfinished 12-story buildings on a sandy hill overlooking the heavily guarded settlement of Netzarim, where two Palestinian gunmen infiltrated early Friday morning and killed three Israeli soldiers, including two women. One of the gunmen escaped, while the other was shot and killed by other soldiers.

The Israelis first blew up a Palestinian police post where the Israeli military said the attacker fled. They then set off explosives in and around the three tall buildings, which belong to Palestinian Preventive Security, the main Palestinian force in Gaza.

Before the huge blasts, Israeli soldiers ordered nearby residents in southern Gaza City out of their homes. The military said the evacuation was for their protection, to avoid harming civilians during the destruction of the three buildings.

Mohammed Hassan Ali, 39, the father of five, said, “I can see dozens of people from the building leaving, mostly on foot. We don’t know where to go.”

Residents said soldiers told the people to move toward the Nusseirat refugee camp, about two miles away.

Maj. Sharon Feingold, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said it was a “temporary evacuation for their own safety,” and after the operation ended, the residents were permitted to return to their homes.

When residents came back, they found considerable damage, said Moreed Naim, 29, an off-duty Palestinian firefighter who lives in the neighborhood.

“All the windows were broken, some of the furniture was damaged, and my car was destroyed,” he said.

Residents said soldiers fired rifles and machine guns, wounding two persons and damaging walls.

Palestinian militants used the unfinished buildings as lookout points to help prepare the deadly infiltration Friday into Netzarim, an isolated settlement southwest of Gaza City, the Israelis said. As Palestinians left their homes, the settlers at Netzarim moved into bomb shelters for protection, the military said.

A Palestinian wounded Monday in an Israeli missile strike in the Nusseirat camp died yesterday, raising the toll to 11. Israeli helicopters targeted a car carrying suspected militants, killing and wounding bystanders.

The military moves overshadowed the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan meant to stop the violence and lead to a Palestinian state in 2005. Contacts over the plan have been frozen for weeks, both because of the violence and because of internal Palestinian political turmoil.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, masked Israeli troops raided two Palestinian hospitals yesterday, arresting two suspected militants — one of them in critical condition — in a commando-style operation the army said would be replicated in other hospitals where there might be terror suspects.

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