Eleven killed in Israeli air strikes in Gaza

Eleven Palestinians died in a series of Israeli air strikes in the Gaza Strip on Monday, including eight in a refugee camp, where Israeli helicopters targeted a car on the main street.

Israeli planes and helicopters struck five times on Monday, hitting a suspected Hamas weapons cache twice, another storehouse and a car carrying suspected militants.

Violent Islamic movements, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, threatened revenge for the Israeli air strikes, but Israel’s premier pledged more raids, further clouding Mideast peace efforts.

“The Israeli military will continue to act to foil terror attacks, capture murderers and liquidate terror organisations,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in a speech to parliament.

The deadliest attack came after nightfall in the Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza. Residents said Israeli helicopters fired three missiles at the main street, destroying a car.

Residents said one of the dead was a doctor who was treating victims when a second missile struck. The identity of the other victims was not immediately known, and the military did not comment.

Hundreds of camp residents charred carried pieces of the vehicle aloft and chanted, “Revenge, revenge.”

Israel’s Channel 10 TV said that none of the dead were militants, characterising the refugee camp strike as a “mistake.”

Also on Monday night, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a building in the Shajaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City, the same structure that was hit in an earlier air strike on Monday, residents said.
Eleven people were wounded, they said. Israeli military sources said the attack was meant to finish the work of the first one.

The first three air strikes, a day after Palestinian militants fired eight homemade rockets from Gaza into Israel, destroyed two weapons labs and warehouses of Hamas, the military said. Four children and a 70-year-old woman were among 23 wounded. Two missiles exploded on a street crowded with schoolchildren.

Also on Monday, US officials at the embassy in Tel Aviv confirmed that John Wolf, the head of the team monitoring implementation of the troubled US-backed “road map” peace plan, was not planning to return to the region soon. Wolf left for the United States last month, saying at the time he’d be back in 10 days.

A Palestinian bombing attack on a US convoy in Gaza last week, killing three American guards, had led to expectations that the United States would scale back its involvement.

Negotiations over implementing the “road map” plan, formally presented in June, have sputtered amid violence and political turmoil. The plan calls for an end to the three-year conflict and leads to a Palestinian state in 2005.

However, except for a six-week Palestinian stand-down in the summer, clashes and bombings have continued unabated. Also, the Palestinians have been unable to field a stable government, and with Israel and the United States boycotting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, no recent contacts have been held between Israeli Palestinian officials.

In his speech, Sharon called Arafat “the greatest obstacle to peace.” Therefore, he added, “Israel is determined to bring about his removal from the political arena,” referring to a Cabinet decision last month. In a newspaper interview last week, Sharon had indicated that he had no plan to expel Arafat—an apparent softening of Israel’s position.

Sharon’s criticism of Arafat was greeted with catcalls and prompted several Arab legislators to walk out of the chamber. The speech also received a harsh response from Shimon Peres, leader of the opposition Labour Party, who accused Sharon of being insincere in his peacemaking efforts.

“Prime minister, you have missed the opportunity,” Peres said.

“We are dealing with a nation that is fighting for its freedom, and don’t take them lightly,” said Peres, who shared the 1994 Nobel peace prize, with the Palestinians.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, called Sharon’s address a “speech of continuing the use of the most disproportionate use of force against Palestinians and a speech that was determined to undermine hope, peace, and reconciliation.”

The facilities Israel targeted on Monday had been used to make and store weapons, including Qassams, the army said. Hamas has fired dozens of Qassams, with a range of about 10 kilometres, at Israeli settlements in Gaza and at towns just outside the fence in the past three years.

The air strikes targeted the “artery of the weapons chain,” said an Israeli army spokesperson, Major Sharon Feingold.

Palestinians were harshly critical. Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said that “the world should wake up to this aggression,” but that he still hopes to negotiate a truce with Israel.

In the first strike, Israeli warplanes bombed a building under construction in Gaza City that Israel said was a weapons site.

Eleven Palestinians were hurt in the bombing. The alleged weapons workshop was 200 metres from the house of Islamic Jihad leader Abdullah Shami, who was not hurt.

Less than three hours later, two missiles hit a white pickup truck. An Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the two men in the truck had tried to salvage explosives not destroyed in the initial air strike.

The two men in the truck and a bystander were killed, and 12 Palestinians were hurt, four seriously. Israel has killed dozens of wanted Palestinians, as well as many bystanders, in targeted attacks.

The pickup had stopped at a traffic light near a gas station on a busy street crowded with school children, when the missiles hit the front of the vehicle. A kindergarten and an elementary school had just let out students for the day.

“School children were trying to cross the road (at the time),” said bus driver Ahmed Sobeh, who was driving behind the pickup. “I saw a person in the car being evacuated and his body was completely burned. I also saw a teenager on the side of the street covered with blood but he was alive.”

In the third attack, a missile destroyed a one-room house on the outskirts of Gaza City. A second missile demolished a car parked nearby, Palestinian officials said. The car’s passengers apparently fled before the missile hit, witnesses said.

About 2 000 Palestinians took part in a funeral procession for the three people killed in the air strikes. Participants carried Palestinian flags and the green banners of Hamas. Many touched the coffins and chanted anti-Israel slogans.

No Hamas leaders attended the funeral. Militant leaders have not appeared in public in recent months, fearing Israeli attacks.

In a statement released in Beirut, the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad pledged to retaliate for Israel’s attacks on Palestinians.

“The two movements agreed to confront the Zionist aggression on our people in Palestine and to urge all (Palestinian) factions and resistance forces to coordinate among each other to confront this aggression,” the statement said.

In the West Bank, soldiers imposed a curfew on the village of Ein Yabrud, near the town of Ramallah, and searched for the attackers in Sunday’s ambush, the military said. Three soldiers were killed and another was seriously wounded. - Sapa-AP

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