Israeli army set to invade Gaza

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The Independent Online

The ageing leader of Hamas, the Islamic nationalist group behind many suicide bombings in Israel, had three guards posted outside his house in Gaza yesterday as the area braced for an assault by Israel.

Speculation was rife that Israeli forces might seize Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the "spiritual leader" of the group held responsible for a suicide bombing in a pool hall near Tel Aviv in which 15 Israelis died.

Tanks moved towards Gaza yesterday after Israel's cabinet approved retaliation for Tuesday's suicide bombing, which was followed by a failed attempt of a second Palestinian bomber near Haifa. Yasser Arafat and his security forces attempted to head off an Israeli attack by arresting 17 Hamas members in Gaza. However, the Israeli media was predicting a strike against the strip – home to some 1.1 million Arabs – although it was widely expected to be limited. "Target Gaza,'' read a headline in Israel's Maariv daily as the armed forces confirmed it was calling up reservists but would not say how many. The last reserve call-up came before Israel's recent military offensive into the West Bank.

Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, suggested that the army was not planning a large-scale operation. "We are going to strike at the nests of terrorism, whether in Gaza or elsewhere," he said. However, he is often at odds with Ariel Sharon, who has made it clear that he still believes that military force is a solution to the long-running conflict.