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Sharon: Israel will expand Gaza offensive to get Israel out of rocket range

JEBALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed Sunday to expand Israel's deadliest offensive in Gaza in four years and to stay as long as needed to stop Palestinian rocket attacks, as the campaign continued, with Israeli aircraft blasting Palestinian militants.

An Israeli aircraft struck a group of Palestinian militants in Gaza City, killing two, just moments after they fired a rocket at Israel from the back of a donkey cart. Before dawn, tanks and bulldozers razed houses, factories and a kindergarten in the northern Gaza Strip.

And in the southern part, tanks and bulldozers opened a new front, briefly moving from a Jewish settlement into the Khan Younis refugee camp, residents said.

So far, 55 Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers have been killed in the offensive launched by Israel after a Palestinian rocket attack on Wednesday killed two preschoolers in the town of Sderot. Israel poured 2,000 troops into northern Gaza _ seizing an area five miles deep and wading into Jebaliyah, the biggest Palestinian refugee camp and one of the most crowded places in the world.

Sharon said he would keep troops in northern Gaza indefinitely to prevent Palestinian rocket fire and shelling. The Palestinian attacks have sharpened opposition to Sharon's plan to withdraw troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip.

``It is necessary to bring about a complete end to the firing of rockets on Sderot and other towns that border the Gaza Strip. The current situation cannot continue,'' Sharon told Israel Radio.

``We have to expand ... the areas of operation in order to get the rocket launchers out of the range of Israeli towns,'' he added.

Currently, the homemade, low-explosive Qassam rockets used by Palestinian militants have a range of about five miles. On Saturday, Hamas militants said they were expanding the Qassam's range and threatened to strike the city of Ashkelon, nine miles from the Gaza border.

Sharon told Israel's Army Radio the operation ``is not a short thing. The forces will have to remain there as long as this danger exists.''

``We must also operate to stop the shelling of Israeli communities in Gaza now and during the evacuation,'' he said.

Israeli officials said the military had no intention of setting up a long-term presence in northern Gaza. ``The length of the operation will be determined by its results,'' senior Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad told Army Radio.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestinian legislators planned to meet Sunday in an emergency session to discuss the Gaza crisis.

The rocket attacks could increase opposition to Sharon's contentious plan to evacuate all Gaza Strip settlements in September 2005. The prime minister insisted the evacuation would be implemented on schedule.

In Jebaliya, the scene of the bloodiest fighting, troops and tanks pulled back a few dozen yards overnight, leaving behind a swath of destruction.

Bulldozers destroyed rows of homes, uprooted orchards and tore up roads. U.N. officials said dozens of people were made homeless.

In Tel al-Zatar, northeast of Jebaliya, more than 35 tanks and five bulldozers made an incursion early Sunday, leveling seven houses, two factories and a kindergarten, residents said.

Toys, coloring books, and posters of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse were scattered throughout the destroyed kindergarten.

``Is this place an army base or military training camp to be targeted?'' asked Jaber Abu Oukal, the head of the kindergarten.

``We have 400 boys and girls, ages three to five, who used to come here to play and start their first step in the educational process. Now they have no place to go but the street,'' he said. ``Those kids will remember forever what the occupation did in their place and who destroyed their toys and took the smile from their faces ``

In Gaza City, an Israeli aircraft fired missiles at militants who had just fired a rocket at Israel from a donket cart, Palestinian sources said. The army said the militants were standing alongside a wagon full of rockets, which was also blown up. Two militants _ brothers Fadi and Bassam Zaannen, 19 and 21 _ were killed and a third was critically wounded, with both his legs severed, hospital officials said.

The militants belonged to the Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella organization of Palestinian factions.

An Israeli strike in Jebaliya killed two Islamic Jihad fighters early Sunday, Palestinian security and hospital officials said. The officials said the strike came from an Israeli drone aircraft. The military said soldiers saw militants planting a bomb and opened fire on them from the ground.

The army said another militant was shot and killed in nearby Beit Hanoun as he was planting a bomb.

In Jebaliya, Israeli soldiers shot and killed Raed Abu Wadi, 36, a deaf and mute man, as he stood on his balcony Sunday, hospital officials and witnesses said. The army had no immediate comment.

Also Sunday, Palestinians found the remains of a man who had been decapitated, apparently by a tank shell. He was later identified as a Hamas militant.

About 15,000 people living in the area of the raid have been without water and electricity for days. Many ill people have been unable to reach hospitals or get their medicine, which health officials normally distribute at the beginning of each month.

``For four days we have had no electricity in our house, and I don't know what to do in order to refill my the insulin I need,'' said Salwa Al Ajouz, a 55-year-old woman with diabetes.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia urged a halt to rocket attacks, asking militants to ``not give Israel excuses to continue the aggression against our people in Gaza.''
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