Israeli tanks and helicopters hit Gaza

Israeli helicopters and tanks hit Gaza City early on Monday, targeting a main Palestinian security compound, while hundreds of kilometres away, a security guard foiled an attempt to hijack an Israeli passenger plane.

Despite all the violence and a sudden, bitter Israeli election campaign, negotiations continue over a US-European plan to put an end to the Mideast conflict, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press.

In Gaza City, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at the headquarters of Preventive Security, the main official Palestinian force, knocking down a wall, security officials and witnesses said.

As tanks moved as far as 4 kilometres into the city,

Israeli gunboats opened fire on the shoreline, shelling the area where Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s office was. The complex as destroyed in an Israeli attack several months ago.

Initial reports said two Palestinian security officers were lightly wounded as they ran away from the base. However, Palestinian security chief Maj.
Gen. Abdel Razek Majaidie said that Israeli forces blocked roads, preventing ambulances from entering,

and cut phone lines. Officials at nearby Al-Quds hospital said Israeli forces fired at one of their buildings.

A TV cameraman working for the Reuters news agency was lightly injured by tank fire, doctors said. The Israeli military said that attack helicopters struck Gaza and tanks were involved in the operation.

The sounds of explosions could be heard all over the city of about 300 000 Palestinians. Witnesses said troops fired shells at the house of Yusuf Mukdad, a Preventive Security officer arrested recently by the Israelis on suspicion of planning attacks against Israelis.

Mustafa Mughrabi (45) lives near the Preventive Security base and said told The Associated Press by telephone that he was hiding under a bed with his children after gunfire hit his house from three directions. Outside, he said he heard “the sound of explosions mixed with screams of children.”

Palestinian official Tayeb Abdel Rahim lives about 100 metres from the targeted base. said that his house was hit by bullets, but he was not harmed. He called the Israeli operation “aggression” and warned that “security and stability for Israeli people cannot be achieved at the expense of the Palestinian

people.”

So far Gaza has been spared the large-scale military operations in which Israel has taken control of most West Bank Palestinian population centres, retaliation for bloody terror attacks. However, Israeli leaders have said that militant groups operate unfettered

in Gaza, and the Israeli military would confront them at some point.

Meanwhile, Turkish police were interrogating a passenger who officials say tried to hijack an El Al Israel Airlines plane just before it landed in Istanbul with 170 people on board. El Al general manager Amos Shapira said that the passenger, an

Israeli Arab, “tried to reach the cockpit with what we assume now is a small pocket knife,” but was overpowered by security guards.

The Israeli airline is known for its stringent security. Though it is frequently targeted, the last successful attack was decades ago. Shapira said airport authorities would investigate how the passenger managed to board the plane with a knife.

Though serious incidents of violence were occurring every day, and Israel was at the beginning of a fierce campaign toward a general election on January 28, diplomats were still finding time to fine-tune a document aimed at negotiating a settlement to the

Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The “road map,” promoted by US President George Bush, calls for a three-phase, three-year program that would result in a Palestinian state living in peace beside Israel.

The latest draft contains some answers to Palestinian concerns, including a softening of a demand to name a

prime minister to relieve Arafat of some of his duties. Israel has said the plan must be shelved until after its election and formation of a new government.

The so-called “Quartet,” working for Mideast peace, is aiming for a mid-December conference at which the final draft of the plan would be presented. The quartet is made up of the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

On Sunday, Israelis buried most of the 12 soldiers and security guards killed in a Palestinian ambush in Hebron on Friday night, as Israeli troops and tanks fanned out through the West Bank city.

The soldiers were guarding Jewish worshippers returning on foot from Hebron to the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba. The Palestinian attack provoked widespread outrage. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was quoted by local media as calling for a

continuous stretch of Israeli settlements from Kiryat Arba to the hotly disputed holy site at Hebron’s center, a move that could mean uprooting many Palestinians. Sharon’s advisers would not comment,

but another Cabinet minister echoed the call.

At a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Sharon and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again disagreed on the issue of exiling Arafat. Netanyahu renewed his call for expelling the Palestinian leader, while Sharon again rejected the proposal, as he has several times

in the past.

“Arafat himself is often engaged in financing and launching the terrorism,” Netanyahu told a news conference. “If any of us still clings to the illusion that we can deliver the task of protecting

Israeli lives to the Palestinian Authority, this is an illusion.”

Other Cabinet hardliners are also urging Sharon to take stronger action. But Sharon has argued that he must weigh such factors as the US desire to keep a lid on regional tensions as it works to build Arab support for a possible war against Iraq. - Sapa-AP

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