Violence flares in Gaza despite prisoner release

An Israeli aircraft fired missiles at an open area near a Palestinian refugee camp early on Monday, the army said, destroying two Palestinian rocket launchers in the latest attack to test a ceasefire. Palestinian hospital officials said three people were wounded.

The air strike came hours after Israel’s Cabinet approved the release of 400 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. The prisoner release is part of the February ceasefire agreement, but has been repeatedly delayed.

The army said it carried out the air strike as militants were preparing to fire rockets or mortar shells from northern Gaza.
It said two launchers were destroyed, but that militants preparing the attack left the scene before the strike.

Hospital officials said a man and two women, apparently bystanders, were wounded by shrapnel.

The violent Islamic Jihad said one of its cells, which minutes earlier had fired three rockets at an Israeli village just outside Gaza, was the target of the air strike.

During more than four years of fighting, Israel carried out dozens of air strikes on militant targets in Gaza. But since the ceasefire went into effect, there has been a dramatic drop in violence, although fighting has begun to flare up in recent weeks.

Israel carried out a missile strike 10 days ago, during a barrage of Palestinian mortar and rocket attacks. The army said militants have fired more than 60 mortar shells and 10 rockets at Israeli targets during that period.

On Monday, militants carried out two attempted attacks on Israeli forces in southern Gaza, firing an anti-tank missile in one instance, causing no damage or injuries, the army said.

In two incidents on Sunday, three Palestinian militants were killed in explosions of their own weapons.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the Sunday Cabinet decision to free 400 prisoners was “part of Israel’s effort to help Abu Mazen [Abbas] and the moderate Palestinian forces”.

Until now, Israel insisted that first, Abbas’s Palestinian Authority must disarm militants and halt all violence before Israel continues steps agreed to under the February 8 truce.

The agreement between Sharon and Abbas included an end to violence, handover of five West Bank towns to Palestinian control, and the release of 900 prisoners.

Israel freed 500 prisoners and turned over two towns, but stopped the process at that point, charging that the Palestinians had failed to carry out their pledge to disarm the militants in the towns under their control. Also, Israel complained that Palestinian militants still attempt many attacks that are foiled by Israeli security.

While approving the latest prisoner release, Sharon told his Cabinet that Israel has “very grave complaints” about Abbas’s performance in reining in militants, according to Sharon’s office.

Justice ministry spokesperson Jacob Galanti said the prisoner release could take place as early as Thursday, after the names of the prisoners are published and opponents have a chance to object.

Palestinians criticised the decision, saying Israel broke its agreement to consult them on which prisoners to release.

The Palestinians demand the release of 360 prisoners who have been in jail for more than a decade, but Israel refuses to free prisoners involved in violence, said Issa Karake, a member of a Palestinian committee that was to have negotiated the release with Israel.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he asked Israel to resume handing over West Bank towns to Palestinian control.

More than 7 000 Palestinians are in Israeli custody, many rounded up by troops during more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

In an interview broadcast on ABC-TV in the United States on Sunday, Abbas said he has succeeded in countering the “culture of violence” among his people, and there will be no more suicide bombings.

But he warned that if progress toward a peace agreement is not achieved in meetings with Sharon next month, “despair and loss of hope will come back and [bring] a return to the old ideas” of armed resistance.

Israelis charge that violent Palestinian groups are using the ceasefire to replenish their stocks of weapons and explosives, and three militants were killed in two such incidents on Sunday.—Sapa-AP