Israel steps up Gaza offensive but fails to slow Palestinian rocket fire

Wednesday, November 22nd 2006, 8:46 am
By: News On 6

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Israel stepped up its offensive against Palestinian rocket squads on Wednesday, sending troops and tanks into two Gaza towns in a sign that intensified diplomatic efforts are facing tough obstacles.

After nightfall, two Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli gunfire in northern Gaza _ a 16-year-old youth and a 39-year-old woman, Palestinians said. The military said there were no exchanges of fire for several hours around the time the killings were reported. Earlier, two Hamas militants were killed.

The Israeli operation failed to stop rockets from slamming into southern Israel and one hit a school just before pupils arrived. No one was hurt.

In the northern Gaza Strip, Israeli snipers positioned themselves on more than a dozen rooftops in the towns of Beit Hanoun and Jebaliya as ground troops fanned out, Palestinian security officials said. Three teenage Palestinian girls were wounded by Israeli gunfire outside a school in Beit Hanoun, hospital and security officials said.

Militants, led by gunmen from the ruling Hamas faction's military wing, faced off against troops in both towns with land mines, anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, security officials said. Two Israeli soldiers were wounded, the military said.

Soldiers took over the home of a Hamas legislator Jamila Shanti who earlier in the month helped organize a women's demonstration that let dozens of militants escape an Israeli siege on a Beit Hanoun mosque, Shanti told The Associated Press.

She was not in the house in Jebaliya at the time.

A bulldozer chipped away at the walls of the two-story structure so troops could enter, according to relatives inside the house and neighbors. Once inside, they locked about 15 members of Shanti's family, including five children, into a single room and threw furniture and clothes out of windows, she said.

``They are only making us more stubborn,'' she said. ``We will resist with our last drop of blood.''

The army confirmed it was operating in the area against Gaza rocket squads, but gave no other details. It said it had no information that its troops were at Shanti's house.

Gaza's escalating violence flew in the face of a series of new initiatives from European and Arab nations to get Israelis and Palestinian talking to each other again.

Egypt is trying to mediate a deal to free an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas-linked gunmen in late June, the event that set off Israel's Gaza offensive. Israel has made freeing the soldier an informal condition for progress on other issues.

Egypt is also involved in efforts to form a more moderate Palestinian government to replace the one led by the violent Islamic Hamas. Such a transition could free up vital Western foreign aid and spur a resumption of peace talks with Israel. However, talks between Hamas and Fatah, led by moderate President Mahmoud Abbas, have faltered.

With the Iraq war drawing increasing international criticism, both the U.S. and Britain are facing growing pressure to defuse Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

Israel's government is clinging to the long moribund ``road map'' peace plan. Presented by President Bush in 2003, it envisioned three stages leading to a Palestinian state aside Israel. But neither side carried out its initial obligations, and violence effectively buried the plan.

Instead of talking peace, top Israeli ministers on Wednesday ordered intensified action to stop rocket barrages on southern Israel, including targeting militants and ``operational actions against Hamas institutions in the Gaza Strip,'' according to a government statement. Officials said that meant attacks on buildings.

Israel has already taken those measures in the past with limited results.

Israel Radio reported the military was gearing up for another large-scale incursion into Gaza.

Gaza militants fired at least six rockets at Israel on Wednesday, including one in the town of Sderot that hit an elementary school entrance before first classes, the army said. No injuries were reported.