/ 20 April 2004

Palestinians launch rocket attacks

Palestinians fired a barrage of homemade rockets and mortar shells at Gaza Strip settlements and towns inside Israel in retaliation for the killing of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, Israel said on Tuesday.

Over two days, 15 Qassam rockets hit Israeli targets, wounding one Israeli and damaging at least five structures, the army said.

It was one of the most intense rocket barrages in more than three years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

On Tuesday morning, two rockets hit the northern Gaza settlement of Nissanit, one landed in the Erez industrial zone in northern Gaza and three in the nearby Israeli communities of Sderot and Kibbutz Niram, the army said.

Militants also fired two missiles at the settlement of Neve Dekalim in the southern Gaza Strip, damaging a house, the army said.

Later on Tuesday, Israeli tanks and a bulldozer cleared some land near Nissanit. Several dozen Palestinian youths drew stones and troops responded with machine gun fire, Palestinian security sources said. There were no reports of injuries.

The rocket attacks began soon after Israel killed Rantisi and two of his bodyguards in a missile strike on his car on Saturday night, three weeks after it killed the militant groups’ spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Following Rantisi’s killing, Hamas

vowed to carry out ”100 unique reprisals.”

Israel said the killings were part of its campaign to weaken Hamas in advance of a proposed pullout from the Gaza Strip and some West Bank settlements in 2005.

”We have to fight the massive fight against terror and especially Hamas,” said Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, who toured army bases in Gaza on Tuesday.

In the West Bank, the Israeli military raided the town of Silwad, where overall Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was born. About 70 people were arrested in Silwad during house-to-house searches, Palestinian security sources said.

Mashaal currently lives in Damascus, Syria. Israeli officials have said Mashaal could be targeted by Israel.

In an interview with Army Radio on Tuesday, Mofaz defended the withdrawal plan, which has to pass a May 2 referendum in the ruling Likud Party before it is implemented. Mofaz is leading the government’s efforts to persuade a majority of the hard-line party’s 200 000 members to support the plan.

”This move is good for the state of Israel,” he said.

Evacuating the settlements named in the plan will strengthen other important Israeli settlements in the West Bank, he said, and getting out of Gaza will make Israel more secure. The army would still surround the coastal strip and control all border crossings

and airspace, he noted.

”(We) will be able to fight terrorism in every manner, and in my opinion with much greater flexibility and less friction,” Mofaz


Giving Palestinians control of some territory could also give rise to a more moderate Palestinian leadership and eventually lead to renewed peace talks, Mofaz said.

The plan gained the support of several key Likud figures in recent days, including Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu announced he would back the proposal after US President George Bush said last week that Israel would not have to dismantle all settlements or absorb Palestinian refugees in a final peace deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also promised his Cabinet the evacuations would not begin until Israel completed a separation

barrier around the West Bank.

Palestinians view the barrier, which dips into the West Bank in parts, as a land grab of territory they want for a future Palestinian state. They also view Sharon’s plan with skepticism, fearing he is willing to give up Gaza and some West Bank settlements in order to strengthen Israel’s hold on the rest of the West Bank.

Mofaz said on Tuesday the barrier would be finished by next year and would encompass the settlements of Maaleh Adumim and Ariel, which would force the barrier’s route deep into the West Bank.

Israel would not abandon the settlements on the other side of the barrier, Mofaz said, but would surround them with individual security fences. – Sapa-AP