Israelis seize Palestinian areas and attack security installations

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The Independent Online

Israeli troops seized Palestinian–controlled areas in the Gaza Strip early today – a first in seven months of fighting – and rocketed Palestinian security installations in retaliation for mortar fire on an Israeli town.

Israeli troops seized Palestinian–controlled areas in the Gaza Strip early today – a first in seven months of fighting – and rocketed Palestinian security installations in retaliation for mortar fire on an Israeli town.

One Palestinian was killed and 36 hurt in the attack from the ground, air and sea – one of the most extensive Israeli military operations since the fall.

Israeli troops also divided Gaza into three parts, barring north–south traffic in the crowded strip of more one million Palestinians.

The attack came in response to the firing of five mortar shells from Gaza at the Israeli Negev Desert down of Sderot, about 2.5 miles from the Gaza Strip and about five miles from a sheep farm owned by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The Palestinians fired dozens of mortars on Israeli targets in recent weeks, mainly on Jewish settlements in Gaza. The attack on Sderot caused no damage or injuries, but was the first on an Israeli town and considered a major provocation by the Sharon government which has promised to restore a sense of security to Israelis.

"This is unjustified and crosses the line," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Israel radio. "There's a limit to everything."

A top Palestinian security official, Brig Gen Abdel Razek Majaidah, denied Israeli accusations that the Palestinian Authority was involved in the attacks.

In response to the Israeli strike, Palestinian security officials canceled participation in US–sponsored security talks that were to have taken place late yesterday.

As part of the retaliation, Israeli troops seized Palestinian–controlled areas in the northern Gaza Strip, from which mortars were fired at Israeli targets, said the Israeli army spokesman, Brig Gen Ron Kitrey.

Army bulldozers also levelled farmland near the northern town of Beit Hanoun, from where the mortars were fired, Israeli officials said.

Kitrey did not say how large an area was taken. Palestinian police officials said three of their positions were seized by Israeli troops.

The army spokesman said troops would remain in the recaptured areas indefinitely. "Once the mission is fulfilled and the shooting stops or the Palestinian Authority takes action to stop it, I believe we won't need to remain there," Kitrey told Israel army radio.

In the past few months, Israeli troops briefly entered Palestinian–controlled areas from time to time, including last week when army bulldozers razed part of a Gaza refugee camp. However, today's operation marked the first time soldiers recaptured land with the intention of remaining there for some time.

Palestinian officials have said considered a recapture of Palestinian–controlled areas a major provocation. Israeli troops withdrew from two–thirds of the Gaza Strip in 1994, as part of interim peace accords.

As part of the Israeli strike, tanks and helicopter gunships also shelled 10 buildings across the Gaza Strip, including eight security installations, among them the Gaza City headquarters of Palestinian police chief Brig Gen Ghazi Jabali.

Rockets punched holes in the facade and ceiling of Jabali's compound, and shattered windows in the third–floor conference room. Families in adjacent buildings fled their homes.

Rockets also hit buildings in the towns of Deir el Balah, Rafah and Beit Hanoun. In Hanoun, the body of a Palestinian policeman was discovered in the rubble this morning. Palestinian doctors said 36 Palestinians were hurt, most by shrapnel.

Since fighting erupted in late September, 472 people have been killed, including 389 Palestinians, 64 Israeli Jews and 19 others.

The escalation of Israeli–Palestinian hostilities coincided with rising tension along Israel's northern borders, after Israeli warplanes blasted a Syrian radar station near Beirut yesterday in retaliation for a Hezbollah guerrilla attack that killed a soldier.

Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben–Eliezer said the raid deep into Lebanon was a signal to Syria – the main power broker in Lebanon – that Israel would not tolerate Hezbollah attacks.

Speaking from Moscow on Lebanese TV, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk a–Sharaa said Israel was expanding the crisis and would "pay a heavy price" for the strike.

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