Israeli helicopters attack Palestinian targets

Strikes follow bombing of school bus
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The Independent Online

Israeli helicopters have fired dozens of rockets at Palestinian targets in Gaza City in retaliation for a bomb attack on a school bus that killed two Israelis and injured nine others.

Israeli helicopters have fired dozens of rockets at Palestinian targets in Gaza City in retaliation for a bomb attack on a school bus that killed two Israelis and injured nine others.

The hour-long attack started just minutes after Israel's security cabinet approved "selective strikes" on Palestinian military areas.

Missiles were fired at the Jabaliya refugee camp on the outskirts of the city. Witnesses said Palestinian gunmen fired back at the helicopters.

Palestinian security offices, including police headquarters and several related buildings, and an office run by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's political movement, Fatah, were also targeted.

Israel TV reports said a key target was the office of Mohammed Dahlan, head of the Preventive Security Service who Israel suspects was behind the bomb attack on the bus. There was no word on Dahlan's whereabouts. Palestinians cleared out of the security offices shortly before the raids began. There were no immediate reports of the extent of the damage.

While the attack was underway, the Voice of Palestine radio called on "all our Arab and Muslim brothers to act immediately to rescue our people".

The cabinet also imposed further economic sanctions against Palestinians and Israel's military encirclement of Palestinian cities will be tightened.

The moves follow the detonation of a mortar shell this morning near an armored bus taking children and teachers from a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip to an elementary school. Two adults were killed and nine passengers wounded, among them five children.

Israel said three Palestinians set off the bomb.

Shrapnel from the blast - a 122mm mortar shell attached to an explosive device - tore melon-sized holes into a side of the red-and-white bus and shattered windows. The words "This is what we get for restraint," were spraypainted in Hebrew on the bus.

The dead were identified as Gabriel Biton and Miriam Amitai, 35, a mother of four. Three wounded children, aged seven, eight, and 12, were from the same family, and each lost either part of an arm or a leg.

Three different groups - "Palestinian Hezbollah, "Al Aqsa Martyrs" and "Omar Al Mukhtar" - claimed responsibility. The first two have not been active before, and it was not clear whether they had ties to existing Islamic militant groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have carried out roadside bombings in Gaza in the bast. The third, Damascus-based "Omar Al Mukhtar," is a little-known splinter of a tiny PLO faction.

Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin was evasive when asked whether his group was responsible. "What happened today is a natural outcome of the many deaths on the Palestinian side," Yassin said, referring to more than 200 Palestinians, many of them children, killed in seven weeks of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. "Our targets are not children, but the military."

Barak convened his security Cabinet several hours after the bombing. "This will not pass without a response," Gilead Sher, a senior adviser to Barak, told Israel army radio. Last week, Israel rocketed Palestinian command centers after deadly attacks on Israelis.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat also consulted with security officials and ordered an investigation. The Palestinian Authority said in a statement it opposes violence, regardless of who commits it. Last week, Arafat ordered Palestinians to stop shooting at Israelis from areas under Palestinian control. However, the ban did not refer to attacks in areas of the West Bank and Gaza that remain under Israeli control.

The Gaza road where the mortar shell was detonated is under Israeli security control, while the surrounding area is under Palestinian rule.

The school bus left the isolated Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in the heart of the Gaza Strip at around 7:30 a.m. (05:30 gmt) Monday. Students and teachers were en route to elementary school in Gush Katif, a bloc of Jewish settlements in the south of the strip.

Three assailants hiding among bushes along the side of the road exploded the mortar shell by remote control when the bus was several dozen meters away, said an army spokesman, Major Yarden Vatikay. Large pieces of shrapnel hit the bus.

After the blast, the three men ran toward Palestinian-controlled land, where they were out of reach of the Israeli security forces. Army bulldozers cut down trees in the area of the attack and an armored personnel carrier took up position on the road nearby.

Army officials said the armor of the bus and the considerable distance between the explosion and the bus helped blunt the impact of the attack.

About 6,500 Jewish settlers live in the Gaza Strip, among 1 million Palestinians.

Jewish settlers have come under repeated attack in the current round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Several roadside bombs have exploded next to armored settler convoys in Gaza, and Israeli motorists have been fired on in the West Bank. Last week, four Israelis were killed in such attacks.

On Saturday, a Palestinian policeman opened fire on Israeli soldiers guarding farm land near Kfar Darom, a heavily fortified settlement of 250 people. One soldier was killed and two were wounded in the attack.

In all, Israeli-Palestinian fighting has claimed 236 lives since September 28.