- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

EREZ CROSSING, Gaza Strip — Palestinian gunmen and suicide car bombers staged an elaborate attack against a major Israeli checkpoint yesterday in what militant groups called revenge for recent air strikes targeting their members.

Four assailants and two Palestinian policemen were killed, but no Israeli soldiers were hurt.

The three main Palestinian militant groups — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade — said they were behind the attack, calling it a joint “self-sacrifice operation.”

In a new tactic in the more than 3-year-old uprising, the attackers used vehicles that looked nearly identical to Israeli army jeeps, complete with military markings, black-and-white army license plates and flashing lights on the roof. It was the latest surge of violence ahead of a proposed Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

The attack began at about 10 a.m. when a Palestinian taxi sped into the Erez crossing zone between Gaza and Israel and exploded just outside a heavily fortified army checkpoint.

Moments later, two more attackers in a jeep with Israeli military markings pulled up. One of the men jumped out and opened fire with an assault rifle. Troops fired back, killing the pair.

A second vehicle disguised as an army jeep blew up outside the crossing zone, apparently after Palestinian policemen guarding the Gaza side blocked its path. Two Palestinian policemen were killed.

The military said they were hit by the spray of shrapnel as the third car exploded, but Palestinian hospital officials said the two had gunshot wounds. Nineteen persons, including police officers and taxi drivers, were wounded, two of them critically.

Body parts were strewn around the wreckage of two vehicles. One of the jeep’s engines sat in the road, and a dog lay dead in a pool of blood.

“The sound of the explosion was huge and powerful, followed by intense machine gun fire from the Israeli army outpost,” taxi driver Ali al-Basyouni, 38, said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he would withdraw from much of the Gaza Strip if peace talks with the Palestinians remain frozen in coming months. Israel will hold off on a withdrawal from Gaza until after the November presidential election in the United States, security officials said last week.

At yesterday’s funeral for the two Palestinian policemen killed earlier in the day, a member of Al Aqsa told a crowd that militants would continue attacks until Mr. Sharon pulls soldiers out of Gaza.

“[Mr. Sharon] is not leaving Gaza because he feels like it; he is being forced to leave Gaza,” the man said.

The Erez crossing has been attacked several times during more than three years of fighting. Past attacks have temporarily shut down the crossing zone’s large industrial park, where 6,000 Palestinians work in factories.

Also yesterday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 19-year-old Palestinian policeman in a West Bank refugee camp.


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