Death toll passes 23 as Israel hunts down Gaza rockets

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The Independent Online

Israeli infantrymen, backed by tanks, were combing the northern Gaza Strip for Qassam rocket launchers and sabotage tunnels in a search-and-destroy operation that has killed at least 23 Palestinians in five days.

Most of the dead were combatants but they also included two children, aged 10 and 14, and a 29-year-old mother of five who, the Palestinians said, was shot by a sniper in the doorway of her home in the southern town of Khan Yunis.

Israeli ground and air forces have killed a total of 320 Palestinians since Hamas abducted Corporal Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid at the end of June. All efforts to broker a prisoner exchange have so far failed. Border guards yesterday shot and wounded a 36-year-old man they said was behaving suspiciously near the Karni freight crossing between Gaza and Israel. He was taken to Gaza hospital.

A helicopter gunship fired five missiles on Saturday at a Hamas squad said to have been making its way to attack Israeli troops. Seven fighters were killed and dozens wounded. On the same day, soldiers killed two Fatah militants allegedly involved in preparing Qassam rockets. Seven people were killed on Friady, including Imad al-Makusi, a local Hamas commander and two of his men.

The Hamas Government's minister for refugee affairs, Ataf Adwan, said: "We are calling on the international community to curb Israeli crimes against the Palestinians. Israel is killing people to try to make our society collapse. They are attacking and besieging us all because of one soldier. They are punishing every Palestinian, not just in Gaza, but in the West Bank too. They are depriving our people of the essentials for their lives." The Israeli army went on the offensive after Palestinian militants continued firing home-made Qassam rockets into the western Negev during the Jewish autumn holiday season, which ended yesterday. Three civilians were injured in the border town of Sderot.

Israel is also trying to stem the large-scale smuggling of arms and explosives into southern Gaza from Egypt because military commanders fear their tactical advantage is being eroded. It's been reported that recent shipments included advanced, Russian-made anti-tank rockets of the kind used with deadly effect by Hizbollah during this summer's Lebanon war, as well as upgraded Grad ground-to-ground missiles and sniper rifles. Israeli commanders fear their tactical advantage is being eroded.

Amir Peretz, the Defence Minister, said Israel had learnt the lesson of Lebanon, where it turned a blind eye for years to Hizbollah's weapons build-up. "We will not allow the terrorist organisations to become stronger," he said.

He also urged Egyptian forces stationed on the Sinai side of the border to try harder to stop the smugglers. Ehud Olmert, Israel's Prime Minister, appeared frustrated yesterday that efforts to arrange a summit meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the relatively moderate Palestinian President who is locked in a power struggle with the Hamas Government, had stalled. The Palestinians are reported to be demanding the release of prisoners as a condition for resuming talks. Mr Olmert refuses to free any prisoners until Corporal Shalit comes home. Mr Olmert's spokeswoman said he was willing to meet Mr Abbas without conditions. "He's putting the ball in the Palestinian court. There is no reason for delay."

Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel, is resisting the attempts by Mr Abbas to form a national-unity coalition as a way out of the impasse.

* Police recommended yesterday that Israeli President Moshe Katsav be charged with rape, sexual assault and fraud, the most serious charges ever levelled at an Israeli leader. The recommendation came at a meeting between police investigators and Attorney General Meni Mazuz. The final decision on whether to put the president on trial rests with Mr Mazuz.

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