Israel destroys runway at Gaza airport

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The Independent Online

Israel has sent tanks and bulldozers into Gazato tear up runways at Palestinian-controlled Gaza International Airport and warned of further actions if Palestinian attacks do not stop.

Israeli forces also detained nine Palestinians, eight suspected of weapons smuggling and one suspected militant activist, the army said.

Israeli bulldozers also destroyed a Palestinian police post in the Gaza Strip that had earlier been abandoned, Palestinian security sources said.

The raids in Gaza were in retaliation for a Palestinian attack that left four Israeli soldiers dead, the army said in a statement. The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. Although Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has condemned the attack, Israel has accused him of responsibility, saying he is not serious about cracking down against militants.

"This action was ... to show a glimpse of what can and will be done in the future if the situation worsens," said Col. Imad Farris, the commander of the elite Givati brigade.

The raids were the third day of attacks against Palestinian targets in retaliation for the shooting incident.

On Thursday, the Israeli army sent tanks and bulldozers into a Palestinian refugee camp, knocking down dozens of buildings.

The army said the buildings were hide–outs used by gunmen, but Palestinians said the bulldozers flattened dozens of homes.

Wednesday, just after the shooting attack, Israel destroyed two Palestinian security posts and closed down three Palestinian naval police stations in the southern Gaza Strip, not far from the scene of the attack. Palestinian police had abandoned the posts earlier, fearing Israeli action.

The military moves come as pressure is increasing on Arafat.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Thursday that Israel would maintain the closure of Ramallah – the West Bank town where Arafat has been confined for weeks – until he arrests those who killed an Israeli Cabinet minister in October.

"If he (Arafat) has to sit there for years, he'll sit there years," said Sharon, who held Arafat responsible for Wednesday's attack because of his failure to crush militant groups.

In Washington, the Bush Administration, after being briefed by Israeli intelligence, has concluded that the Palestinian Authority and a PLO faction controlled by Arafat were involved in a plan to smuggle 50 tons of weapons to Gaza, according to a senior U.S. official Thursday.

"I, like many, am beginning to suspect those arms were headed ... to promote terror," U.S. President George W. Bush told reporters. He did not directly blame Arafat, but said, "I do believe that once the evidence is in, those responsible need to be held to account... Mr. Arafat must renounce terror, must reject those who would disrupt the peace process through terror and must work hard to get to the peace table."

The Palestinian Authority has disavowed any knowledge of the ship but the captured ship's captain says the weapons were destined for Gaza.

Sharon Thursday restated his boycott of the Palestinian leadership and this time he linked it to the arms shipment.

Sharon said there would be no contact with the Palestinian Authority until those behind the attempted smuggling were brought to justice by the Palestinians, but he stressed that the ban did not apply to consultations between Israeli and Palestinian security officials.

Such meetings have been given high priority by U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni and to end them would sour relations between Israel and the United States.

Before dawn Friday morning, Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved into Gaza airport. The bulldozers dug dozens of holes some 50 centimeters to 100 centimeters (2–4 feet) deep in the runway before leaving, Palestinian security officials said.

Later, Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers moved into Palestinian controlled areas in Gaza and cut the road between the towns of Rafah and Khan Younis, the security sources said.

The action is "in order to control and prevent the movement of terrorists," the army said in a statement.

Israeli soldiers also detained eight people in Rafah suspected of weapons smuggling, the army statement added.

Also Friday, Israeli soldiers entered a village in the West Bank and arrested a Palestinian activist, the army said. Israel radio's Arabic–language service said the man, 24–year–old Amer Ishtawi was a member of the militant Hamas group.

Palestinian security forces in the last three days arrested two members of the militant Islamic Jihad group, including one who was on Israel's most wanted list, a Palestinian official said Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Israel has demanded further arrests and says the Palestinian Authority has not been willing to take serious measures aimed at crushing the militants.

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