Israel seizes Palestinian-controlled areas

Tuesday, April 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Israeli troops seized Palestinian-controlled areas in the Gaza Strip early Tuesday _ a first in seven months of fighting _ and rocketed Palestinian security bases in retaliation for mortar fire on an Israeli town.

One Palestinian was killed and 36 hurt in the attack from the ground, air and sea _ one of the most extensive Israeli military operations since the fall.

Israeli troops also divided Gaza into three parts, barring north-south traffic in the crowded strip of more 1 million Palestinians.

Several hours after the nighttime takeover, Israeli tanks deployed in Palestinian areas fired toward Palestinians who approached the new Israeli positions. Palestinian medics carrying the mangled body of a Palestinian policeman on a stretcher started running in panic when they came under fire near the town of Beit Hanoun in the northeastern Gaza Strip.

The attack came in response to the firing of five mortar shells on the Israeli town of Sderot, about 2 1/2 miles east of Beit Hanoun and about five miles from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's sheep farm in the Negev Desert.

The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the mortar attack on Sderot, saying it came in retaliation for recent Israeli rocket attacks. A top Palestinian security official, Brig. Gen. Abdel Razek Majaidah, denied Israeli accusations that the Palestinian Authority was involved.

The Palestinians had fired dozens of mortars at Israeli targets in recent weeks, mainly Jewish settlements in Gaza. The attack on Sderot caused no damage or injuries, but was the first on an Israeli town and considered a major provocation by Sharon who has promised to restore a sense of security to Israelis.

``This is unjustified and crosses the line,'' Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Israel radio. ``There's a limit to everything.''

Ahmed Abdel Rahman, an aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said the Israeli strike undercut peace efforts. ``Sharon will not achieve peace and security in such a way,'' Abdel Rahman said.

Palestinian security officials canceled participation in U.S.-sponsored security talks that were to have taken place late Monday.

On Monday, the Jordanian foreign minister had presented a new proposal to Peres about how to stop the fighting and restart peace talks.

The escalation of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities coincided with rising tension along Israel's northern borders, after Israeli warplanes blasted a Syrian radar station near Beirut on Monday in retaliation for a Hezbollah guerrilla attack that killed a soldier.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said the raid deep into Lebanon was a signal to Syria _ the main power broker in Lebanon _ that Israel would not tolerate Hezbollah attacks.

Speaking from Moscow on Lebanese TV, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk a-Sharaa said Israel was expanding the crisis and would ``pay a heavy price'' for the strike.

As part of the retaliation against Palestinians, Israeli troops seized Palestinian-controlled areas close to the Erez Crossing in the northern Gaza Strip, from which mortars were fired at Israeli targets, said the Israeli army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey.

Kitrey did not say how large an area was taken.

Palestinian officials said Israeli troops went at least half a mile into Palestinian territory and retook six Palestinian police positions along Gaza's eastern border with Israel. More than 20 tanks and armored personnel carriers were deployed in the area, Majaidah said. Army bulldozers were reported razing some of the positions.

Kitrey said troops would remain in the recaptured areas indefinitely.

``Once the mission is fulfilled and the shooting stops or the Palestinian Authority takes action to stop it, I believe we won't need to remain there,'' Kitrey told Israel army radio.

In the past few months, Israeli troops have entered Palestinian-controlled areas from time to time, including last week when army bulldozers razed part of a Gaza refugee camp. However, Tuesday's operation marked the first time soldiers recaptured land with the intention of remaining there for some time.

Palestinian officials have said they considered a recapture of Palestinian-controlled areas a major provocation. Israeli troops withdrew from two-thirds of the Gaza Strip in 1994 as part of interim peace accords.

As part of the Israeli strike, tanks and helicopter gunships also shelled 10 buildings across the Gaza Strip, including eight security installations, among them the Gaza City headquarters of Palestinian police chief Brig. Gen. Ghazi Jabali.

Rockets punched holes in the facade and ceiling of Jabali's compound, and shattered windows in the third-floor conference room. Families in adjacent buildings fled their homes.

Rockets also hit buildings in the towns of Deir el Balah and Rafah. Palestinian doctors said 36 Palestinians were hurt, most by shrapnel.

Since fighting erupted in late September, 472 people have been killed, including 389 Palestinians, 64 Israeli Jews and 19 others.