- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2005

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel launched a “crushing” retaliation yesterday against Hamas in Gaza with deadly air strikes and troops massed for a ground incursion after the militant group fired 35 rockets at Israeli towns — its first major attack since the Gaza pullout.

The escalation threatened to derail a shaky, seven-month truce and quashed hopes that Israel’s ceding the coastal strip to the Palestinians would invigorate peacemaking.

Israel’s reprisals drew fresh Hamas threats of vengeance. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas came under growing Israeli pressure to confront the militants.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told security chiefs in a meeting that “the ground of Gaza should shake” and that he wanted to exact a high price from Palestinians everywhere, not just Hamas. He promised a “crushing” response, including air strikes, targeted killings and arrest raids, participants said afterward.

Later, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Security Cabinet authorized a Gaza ground incursion that would begin today, with artillery fire from the border, and grow in intensity until troops enter the Gaza Strip later in the week.

Minutes after the measures were approved, an explosion rocked the southern Gaza Strip. Israeli aircraft struck three suspected weapons-storage facilities in Gaza and a school in a crowded Gaza City neighborhood late yesterday and early today, wounding 17, Palestinian officials said.

Earlier yesterday, Israeli aircraft fired five missiles at two cars carrying Hamas militants in Gaza City, killing at least two, officials said.

The strikes meant Israel has resumed targeted killings of Palestinian militants, a practice suspended during the truce. During more than four years of fighting, Israel has killed scores of militants and bystanders in such attacks.

Hamas identified the dead as Nafez Abu Hussein and Rwad Farhad, local field commanders. Several hundred gunmen, some firing into the air, joined a funeral procession for Farhad, who was 17.

Israel also sealed the West Bank and Gaza, barring thousands of Palestinians from reaching jobs in the Jewish state.

The crisis erupted amid a major challenge to Mr. Sharon’s leadership in his hard-line Likud Party and could strengthen the hand of his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who warned the Gaza pullout endangered Israel.

A Likud vote tomorrow could determine whether Mr. Sharon quits the party — a move that likely would bring early elections and prompt him to form a new centrist party to capture mainstream voters.

The heightened violence followed a chain of events starting Friday with an explosion at a Hamas rally in Gaza’s Jebaliya refugee camp. At least 15 Palestinians were killed and dozens wounded.

Hamas blamed Israel, claiming it fired missiles into the crowd, and said its rocket attacks were in retaliation. Israel denied involvement, and the Palestinian Authority said Islamist militants apparently caused the blast themselves by mishandling explosives.

A senior Palestinian security official confirmed yesterday that friction caused a rocket-propelled grenade in a truck to explode, which then ignited about 10 other grenades. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.

In a speech yesterday, Mr. Abbas also blamed Hamas and renewed demands that armed groups stop flaunting weapons in public.

“We are required more than ever before to end this frequent tragedy that resulted from chaos and military parades in residential areas,” he said.

Islamist militants took center stage in Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal, holding military-style victory parades. Many Palestinians endorsed the militants’ claim that they drove Israel out by force.

The latest bloodshed appeared to put Hamas on the defensive.

The group called Mr. Abbas’ position “a stab in the back of the martyrs” and a blow to efforts to work out differences among militant factions.

Mr. Abbas has tried to co-opt Hamas, mainly through the lure of parliament elections. He has rejected calls by Israel and the international community to confront and disarm militants.

Under an informal agreement between Mr. Abbas and the militants, a ban on displaying weapons was to take effect later yesterday. It was not clear whether Hamas would honor the deal after the Israeli strikes.

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