Israel launches Gaza raids to curb militias

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, vowed that the campaign would continue until the violence ceased. "Unfortunately," he said, "the Palestinian Authority has not taken any serious action to battle terrorism. We will not accept under any circumstances a continuation of terrorism. Therefore, our activities will be broad and non-stop until they halt terrorism."

The Israeli leader also ruled out further political negotiations until Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, began dismantling the armed groups. A scheduled summit was cancelled last month after Hamas militants launched 40 Qassam rockets from Gaza at the Israeli border town of Sderot.

Although the United States has urged Mr Sharon to allow Palestinians more freedom of movement, the White House endorsed Israel's demand that Mr Abbas curb the militias.

Ahmad Qureia, the Prime Minister, complained that Israeli operations were undermining efforts to sustain a ceasefire, agreed at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in February. Addressing the Palestinian cabinet in Ramallah, he denounced "Israel's escalation and its military provocations".

At the same time, he called on all Palestinian factions to honour the truce and condemned the Hadera suicide attack. "This would not help us achieve any of the Palestinian rights, but rather will add fuel to the fire, the thing we should avoid," he said.

Captain Yael Hartman, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said the army intended to disable the Islamic Jihad network, which it believed was planning further attacks under orders from its leaders in Damascus. She said the army would do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, but added: "We are not going to stop because Islamic Jihad hides behind civilians. We have several measures we can take, and we won't hesitate to use them."

As a first step, the army barred all Palestinians from entering Israel and ordered private Palestinian vehicles off the roads of the northern West Bank, where most of the recent would-be bombers have been recruited. Troops arrested at least 11 Islamic Jihad activists, as well as the father of Hassan Abu Zeid, the 20-year-old Hadera bomber. Warplanes struck four times yesterday at open areas in the northern Gaza Strip, from which the Qassams were launched. They cut a road used by the rocket crews. Palestinian witnesses said that aircraft also hit fields near Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip and spread alarm by repeatedly breaking the sound barrier.

Simon McDonald, the British ambassador, laid a wreath yesterday at the scene of the Hadera bombing on behalf of the European Union. "What happened here was an outrage," he said. "It was a criminal and cowardly attack. Britain, as president of the EU, condemns this attack in the strongest possible terms."

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