Israel hints of military action against Syria following suicide bombing

Monday, August 30th 2004, 9:38 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israel ratcheted up its rhetoric against Syria on Thursday, hinting of possible military action following this week's deadly suicide bombing in southern Israel.

Israeli officials repeatedly have accused Syria of backing the Hamas militants who carried out Tuesday's attack, which killed 16 people in Beersheba, 15 miles south of the West Bank. Hamas' top leadership is based in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

``Syria is responsible for acts of terror and giving patronage to terror groups,'' Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Army Radio on Thursday. ``When we see Syria as responsible, it of course has to understand that this kind of thing will have very clear consequences for it.''

Security sources said Israeli leaders have not begun discussing possible military actions against Syria and analysts said the two countries are not likely to go to war any time soon.

But Israeli officials are warning that they might move against Hamas leaders in Syria. The Damascus-based leadership's influence has grown following Israel's assassination of top Hamas leaders in Gaza.

Hamas' overall leader, Khaled Mashaal, who escaped an Israeli assassination attempt in 1997, resides in Damascus and could be targeted again.

Raanan Gissin, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, warned that Mashaal and other Hamas leaders ``will enjoy no immunity.''

In Damascus, a Syrian official denied the presence of training centers for Palestinian militants. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa was quoted by the official SANA news agency as saying threats against Syria were unjustified and would ``worsen the already aggravated situation in the region.''

Hamas issued its own statement from Damascus accusing Israel of attempting to escalate the Mideast crisis by pointing the finger at Syria. It insisted that commanders in the Palestinian territories, not its policy-makers in Syria, plan and execute its bomb attacks in Israel.

Also Thursday, thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel ended an 18-day hunger strike, with representatives saying that Israel had agreed to meet key demands for improving their conditions.

Israeli authorities confirmed that the strike by some 4,000 prisoners was over but denied giving in to any Palestinian demands. The Prisons Authority, however, said it would evaluate humanitarian conditions in the coming days.

In the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, Israeli troops Thursday ordered 6,000 Palestinians from their homes and ushered them to a nearby school yard while the army razed two five-story buildings it said were used to stage militant attacks. Residents said 40 families were left homeless, though the army put the figure at 12.

In a separate incident, fighting broke out Thursday after the army said it uncovered a tunnel leading from the Palestinian town of Deir el-Balah to a nearby Jewish settlement.

Three Palestinian civilians were killed, including a 15-year-old boy, and at least 21 others were wounded in the Deir el-Balah fighting, Palestinian hospital officials said.

By late in the day Israeli troops controlled a large section of the town, with tanks stationed about 400 yards from its center, witnesses said.

Israel is planning to pull out of Gaza and evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements there next year. Armed Palestinian groups are determined to show that they drove the Israelis out, and the Israelis are just as determined to demonstrate that they are in control, hitting at the militants.

Hamas, a radical Islamic group that has carried out dozens of attacks in Israel over the past four years, claimed responsibility for Tuesday's suicide bombing. But in a shift, Israel has focused the blame on Syria.

``There are Syrian fingerprints all over the Beersheba attack,'' said Dore Gold, another adviser to Sharon. He said the Damascus offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad ``are real command centers.''

Israeli security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in response to the bombing, Israel also would go after local Hamas leaders and step up military patrols in the sparsely populated, barren southern part of the West Bank.

The Israeli army commander, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, said Wednesday that those who support terrorism ``cannot sleep quietly at night,'' mentioning Palestinian leaders, Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, Syria and Iran.

On Oct. 5, 2003, Israeli planes struck a training camp belonging to Islamic Jihad outside Damascus, a day after a female suicide bomber blew up a restaurant in the Israeli port city of Haifa, killing 21.

Israel has held Syria partly responsible for years of Hezbollah raids from Lebanon, where Syria maintains a large military presence. In practice, Israel has been hesitant to clash with Syria, and the border has been calm for decades.

In another development, Palestinian lawmakers will go on a month-long strike to protest Yasser Arafat's refusal to ratify new laws that would force reform in the corruption-ridden Palestinian Authority, officials said.

In a rare of show of defiance, lawmakers voted unanimously Wednesday to suspend all legislative sessions, hoping to push Arafat to approve reform laws the have passed.

``We decided to give the executive powers one month to ratify these laws,'' said speaker Raouhi Fattouh. The full 86-member parliament is expected to honor the strike, officials said