- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

TEL AVIV — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned of a return to “armed struggle” against Israel yesterday, as Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip left at least 20 Palestinians dead in the territory, including four children.

Palestinians responded with barrages of rockets targeting the Israeli city of Sderot.

“I do not support a return to armed struggle at this point in time. But, at a later date, this could be an option for the Palestinian people,” Mr. Abbas said in an interview with Jordan’s al-Dustour newspaper.

“If the U.S.-mediated peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were to fail, it would put relations at a dangerous milestone,” he said.

Mr. Abbas has long opposed the use of force against Israel. His comments come at a time when violence in and around the Gaza Strip has reached a new and dangerous level.

Israeli aircraft carried out some 21 attacks in the Gaza Strip yesterday in retaliation for dozens of rocket attacks that left one person dead on Wednesday at a college near the town of Sderot.

Palestinian militants reportedly fired an estimated 70 missiles yesterday into southern Israel in retaliation for the Israeli air strikes — including several that fell on the coastal city of Ashkelon.

Yesterday’s fighting followed a series of attacks on Wednesday that left about 10 people dead — including a 6-month-old — and Hamas government buildings in ruins.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a senior Abbas aide, said that the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip were aimed at torpedoing the fledgling peace talks.

“There is one significance: The Israeli government plans to destroy the peace process,” he said.

Palestinian Authority officials have expressed disappointment that peace talks with the Israelis after the Annapolis summit last year has yet to bear visible fruits.

The militant Islamist group Hamas, which took over Gaza by force last summer, refuses to recognize the Jewish state.

The escalation of rocket fire from Gaza has ratcheted up pressure on the Israeli government to switch its tactics toward the Gaza Strip and Hamas militants.

Two ministers in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Cabinet yesterday complained that the current military response to the rocket attack was ineffective.

Israeli military analysts said, however, that the government and security chiefs in Israel continue to oppose the option of a broad invasion and re-occupation of the Gaza Strip.

Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza in 2005.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said military officials are preparing for the likelihood of an ongoing escalation.

“A ground operation is real. We are not happy to do it, but we won’t shirk from it,” said Mr. Barak, a former prime minister.

The four children in Gaza killed yesterday were aged 7 to 14, and they were reportedly playing soccer at the time of the attack in the Jabaliya neighborhood. Three of the children were from one family.

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