Israeli air force strikes Gaza, Jenin; Sharon declares 'war on terror'

Monday, December 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared war on terror Monday, and Israeli airstrikes destroyed two of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's helicopters in Gaza and hit West Bank security installations.

Ten Palestinians were wounded in the missile attack by Israeli helicopter gunships near Arafat's seaside headquarters, which raised a plume of black smoke over Gaza City. Arafat was in the West Bank at the time of the attack.

Sharon convened an emergency Cabinet meeting to decide the scope of Israel's response to suicide bombings and shootings by Islamic militant groups that killed 26 people in Israel on Saturday and Sunday.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said Sharon's speech, coupled with the airstrikes, signaled an Israeli attempt to ``overthrow the Palestinian Authority.'' Palestinian officials said the harsh reprisals undermined a sincere Arafat effort to crack down on Islamic militants in the wake of the suicide bombings.

However, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told reporters that Israel has no intention of bringing down Arafat's administration.

Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, the Israeli military spokesman, said helicopters used by Arafat to shuttle between the West Bank and Gaza were targeted because ``they were symbols of his mobility and freedom.''

Since Sunday night, Palestinian security forces have rounded up about 110 members of the Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the group that claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings in a Jerusalem pedestrian mall that killed 10 young Israelis Saturday and another suicide bombing that killed 15 on a bus in Haifa Sunday. A Hamas shooting in the Gaza Strip on Sunday killed one Israeli.

In the past, the Palestinians have quickly released some militants detained in sweeps _ and the Bush administration on Monday cautioned against what White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called a ``revolving door.''

Concerning Israel's airstrikes, Fleischer said, ``Israel has a right to defend itself.'' Secretary of State Colin Powell cautioned that all sides must consider the repercussions of their actions on the peace process.

After the weekend attacks, Arafat declared a state of emergency in the Palestinian areas and ordered illegal weapons confiscated, said a Palestinian security official.

But a senior Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said ``very few, if any'' of the 108 militants Israel wants arrested are among those rounded up.

In his televised speech, Sharon did not refer to Palestinian arrests and said Arafat was directly responsible for terrorism suffered by Israelis. Sharon said he would wage ``war on terror ... with all the means at our disposal.''

``Arafat is the main impediment to peace and stability in the Middle East,'' Sharon said. ``Arafat has chosen the path of terror (to) try to make diplomatic gains through murder.''

Sharon warned: ``We will pursue those responsible, the perpetrators of terrorism, its supporters and those who send them. We will pursue them until we catch them, and they will pay the price.''

Israeli missiles struck a security compound near Arafat's seaside headquarters in Gaza City, hitting one of his helicopters on its landing pad and the other in hangar. Arafat has at least one more helicopter.

Shifa hospital in Gaza reported 10 people injured in the attack. Missiles struck an underground fuel depot, causing a fire that poured out thick smoke over Gaza City.

Security officials and civilians were seen running for cover. But the compound was largely empty, since most Palestinians were home for Iftar, the traditional breaking of the daylong fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

In the West Bank, Israeli F-16 warplanes struck a Palestinian police building in the northern town of Jenin, Palestinian security officials said.

In Bethlehem, a Palestinian was killed in an explosion in a house. Witnesses said he was apparently preparing a bomb and it went off prematurely.

Several members of Sharon's Cabinet demanded on Monday that Israel expel Arafat _ who returned from exile in 1994 as part of the Israeli-PLO interim peace accords and established enclaves of autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Palestinians' U.N. observer, Nasser al-Kidwa, said that if Sharon launched a full-scale attack on Arafat's administration, ``he will be the one to be held responsible for the total breakdown of the situation.''

He said Israel was trying to sabotage the peace process.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Shaath called the Israeli attack aggression. He said the Palestinians were trying to calm the public, ``but the Israelis are not helping us, they are always destroying our efforts.''

A survey in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot indicated that 37 percent of Israelis want the government to topple Arafat, while 32 percent said Israel must begin accelerated peace talks without waiting for a cease-fire. The survey by the Dahaf institute was based on responses from 502 people and had a margin of error of 4.3 percent.

In other violence, a Palestinian was killed in a gunbattle with Israeli troops near the West Bank city of Tulkarem late Sunday, and a Palestinian farmer was shot and killed early Monday as he walked toward his field. The Israeli military said troops shot a Palestinian man they suspected was trying to plant a bomb.

The past 14 months of fighting has killed more than 230 people on the Israeli side and more than 780 on the Palestinian side.