Israelis step up Gaza offensive but fail to slow Palestinian rocket fire

Thursday, November 23rd 2006, 6:23 am
By: News On 6

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Israel went after Palestinian militants in northern Gaza on Thursday with airstrikes, tanks, and infantry, Palestinian security officials said. The operation did not keep rockets from slamming into southern Israel.

Israeli tanks rumbled up to an apartment complex on the outskirts of the town of Beit Lahiya around dawn, security officials said. Troops fired bursts from turret-mounted machine guns, killing a militant and wounding another man before withdrawing, they said.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said militants had fired rockets into Israel from a field near the apartment complex overnight. None of the Palestinian militant groups immediately claimed the dead man as a member.

The army said Israeli troops in the same area saw a figure they deemed suspicious and opened fire, but think he escaped unharmed. It was not immediately clear if this was the same incident in which the Palestinian was killed.

Israeli infantrymen also were operating inside Beit Lahiya on Thursday. Snipers took over a building overnight, security officials said, and militants fired two shoulder-launched rockets at them, setting the top floor on fire.

Residents said helicopter gunships hovered overhead, and the Hamas TV station showed tanks moving through streets and army bulldozers leveling agricultural land just outside the town.

The rockets, meanwhile, kept landing. Three were fired from Gaza, the army said, and two landed _ one in the rocket-scarred city of Sderot, and the other in an open field. No injuries were reported.

In all, 161 rockets have been launched from Gaza since the beginning of November, and 93 landed in Israeli territory. About 70 were launched in October, before Israel widened its operations against rocket squads.

The militants' rocket operations are exacting an increasingly heavy toll near Israel's border with Gaza. Two civilians were killed over the past week, and the near-daily attacks have severely disrupted the lives of anxious residents.

On Wednesday, Israel's Security Cabinet of senior government officials resisted military pressure for a broad offensive in northern Gaza, though it did approve intensified action against wanted militants and attacks on Hamas operations in Gaza.

Israeli security officials said they were speeding up a search for a high-tech shield to protect civilians from the Palestinian rockets.

They were looking at two systems, one that stops rockets using 35mm cannon shells and another that uses focused laser beams, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of Israel's anti-missile preparations.

But Reuven Pedatzur, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and defense commentator for the Haaretz daily, said none of the systems would be practical in the near future and that investing millions in their development would be a waste. The military was looking into the systems, he said, merely ``to show the public that it's doing something.''

``The only way to deal with the rocket threat is to either recapture every inch of the Gaza Strip or make peace,'' Pedatzur said.

With violence in Gaza continuing, advisers to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met on Wednesday night to try to push ahead plans for a first working meeting between the two leaders. Abbas adviser Saeb Erekat said no date was set.

Abbas has balked at meeting with Olmert without receiving assurances he would walk away from the talks with concrete results, such as the release of Palestinian prisoners Israel holds.