- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2004

SDEROT, Israel — Palestinian militants rocketed this Israeli border town yesterday during a visit by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, underscoring Israel’s helplessness in stopping the crude projectiles launched from the Gaza Strip.

Five rockets hit Sderot, even though Israeli soldiers reoccupied parts of the northern Gaza Strip earlier in the day to prevent such barrages. One Sderot resident was hurt. Mr. Sharon, who was more than a mile from where the rockets struck, was not harmed.

The military operation in Gaza came in response to the deaths of a 3-year-old boy and a 49-year-old man on Monday, the first Israelis to be killed by rockets from Gaza. Since 2002, militants have fired more than 200 rockets at Israeli targets, but most have missed.

Military officials and observers warned that the militant Hamas group, with the help of Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, has managed to increase the range and deadliness of the rockets.

A new threat from Gaza could complicate Mr. Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the coastal strip by September 2005. More rocket attacks could undercut popular support for the plan.

Mr. Sharon visited Sderot, a working-class town two miles from Gaza, to try to reassure panicked residents. While he visited a community center, three rockets fell more than a mile away. It was not clear whether the militants were aware of Mr. Sharon’s presence.

The prime minister promised “wide-ranging actions to ensure that what happened here yesterday will not recur,” but was met with skepticism.

“I want to ask you how it can be that a child goes to nursery school and doesn’t come home again, how?” Yitzhak Ohayon, the father of the toddler killed on Monday, asked Mr. Sharon.

Wearing a black skullcap, Mr. Ohayon sat on the floor in a traditional Jewish sign of mourning. He held up a newspaper with the story on his son, Afik, filling the front page.

“This is the most terrible thing that could happen,” replied Mr. Sharon. The prime minister lost one of his sons in a shooting accident when the boy was 12.

“There is no cure for this pain, which will follow you all your life,” Mr. Sharon said.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli tanks encircled the town of Beit Hanoun, home to 21,000 Palestinians. Bulldozers tore up the main road in the eighth major Israeli military operation there since the outbreak of fighting in 2000.

Troops advanced about 700 yards into town, meeting no armed resistance, only sporadic stone-throwing by teenagers, residents said. A hospital said 17 of the youngsters were wounded by army fire, one critically.

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