Gaza violence mounts amid deadlock over Israeli soldier

Sakher Abu El Oun

GAZA CITY, July 5, 2006 (AFP) – Israel struck Gaza from the air and mulled further action Wednesday after militants holding a soldier in the strife-torn Palestinian territory launched an unprecedented rocket attack on the Jewish state and promised more bloodshed.

Israeli warplanes attacked the Palestinian interior ministry headquarters in the Gaza Strip for the second time in a week, causing heavy damage and wounding four, Palestinian medical sources said.

Israeli aircraft also pounded other targets in the Gaza trip for the eighth consecutive night, as the crisis sparked by the June 25 abduction of an Israeli soldier continued to mount.

In the most spectacular operation against Israel since the capture of Gilad Shalit plunged the Middle East in a fresh crisis, one of the groups holding the 19-year-old corporal fired a new type of rocket into the heart of Ashkelon.

The first Qassam rocket to hit the centre of the southern coastal town ploughed into a school, causing no injuries but drawing furious calls for retribution from members of the Israeli government.

As dozens of Israeli tanks, bulldozers and personnel carriers edged into Gaza from the north and more forces were poised to thrust into the strip from the south, the expected major offensive appeared closer than ever.

"This strike on the heart of Ashkelon is a very serious incident which constitutes an escalation of unprecedented gravity in the campaign of terror waged by Hamas, which leads the Palestinian Authority," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a speech to mark US Independence Day.

"This criminal attempt that was intended to harm Israeli citizens living within the sovereign State of Israel will have unprecedented and far-reaching consequences. Hamas will be the first to feel this," he added.

Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of the security cabinet, called for systematic targeted killing operations against "terrorist leaders" as the only posssible response to the assault.

"Systematic operations to liquidate terrorist chiefs… Is the only thing they will understand if these attacks cannot stop," he told army radio.

Hamas’s armed wing claimed the rocket attack and vowed to step up its attacks after Israel rejected a prisoner swap and pressed on with its Gaza offensive.

The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades issued a statement celebrating the attak launched a "new type of rocket" with longer range that those that have been fired daily on southern Israel in recent days.

It promised "a new era of violence" if Israel did not stop its military operation and added: "Our revenge will be painful and they (the Israelis) should expect surprises."

In the occupied West Bank, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian militant in a refugee camp near the town of Jericho, medical and security sources said, although there was no immediate indication which faction he belonged to.

Following the expiry Tuesday of an ultimatum set by Shalit’s Palestinian captors, Olmert again ruled out any negotiations with militants and promised to strike anyone linked to them, in a thinly veiled reference to Syria.

Israel said the captive soldier remained alive after being seized and wounded ten days ago in a Palestinian raid.

Israel has sent tanks and troops back into the Gaza Strip for the first time since leaving last September after a 38-year occupation.

The shadowy Army of Islam, one of three groups that claims to be holding Shalit in the Gaza Strip, said Tuesday he would not be killed.

The group, together with the armed wing of the governing Hamas movement and the Popular Resistance Committees, snatched Shalit in a raid on an army post on June 25 in which two other soldiers and two militants were killed.

The prime minister of the Hamas-led Palestinian government, Ismail Haniya, said his administration continued to appeal for "the need to preserve the life of the kidnapped Israeli soldier and treat him well".

Israeli armour combing the northern Gaza Strip and looking for tunnels used by militants shot and seriously wounded a Palestinian in the town of Beit Lahiya early Wednesday, Palestinian medical sources said.

The international community has issued appeals for restraint in the worst crisis in the Middle East since Hamas came to power in March and Olmert formally took the Israeli helm in May.

France and Britain appealed for calm and diplomacy to prevail, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran condemned the "Israeli escalation."

On Tuesday, Washington insisted a return to peace had "to begin with the return of the Israeli soldier."

The UN’s Middle East envoy Alvaro de Soto warned that the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, with a population of 1.4 million, had become "dangerous" after Israel knocked out a power station last week.

He warned of the risk of water-born diseases without proper water distribution, sanitation and sewage system.

But Israel insisted Gazans were suffering no shortage of basic necessities, saying it had shipped in large quantities of food, petrol and medical supplies.