Seven die as Israel hits back

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The Independent Online

Seven Palestinians, including three civilians, have been killed in one of the most intense Israeli assaults on the Gaza Strip in 17 months of fighting.

Israel shelled Palestinian targets by land, air and sea on Wednesday in retaliation for a Palestinian rocket attack on an Israeli town.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's home in Gaza City and a UN-run school for the blind were severely damaged in the air strikes. The blasts blew out windows and collapsed a back wall in Arafat's home. Arafat's wife and daughter live abroad.

In a West Bank village, three Palestinian school students were wounded when Israeli soldiers fired toward villagers throwing stones at an Israeli convoy. Two of the students, ages 12 and 16, were seriously wounded. The army said the Israeli convoy came under fire.

The Israeli strike against Gaza came several hours after Palestinians fired two unguided Qassam rockets late Tuesday, hitting an Israeli town for the first time.

One missile struck an apartment building in the Israeli town of Sderot near Gaza. An infant was moderately wounded and another child lightly hurt. "Nothing is the same as it was before," Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal told Israel Radio. "Now children cannot play peacefully in their yards here."

Israel's security Cabinet on Tuesday reaffirmed a decision to carry out relentless military strikes against Palestinian targets in response to a sharp increase in Palestinian attacks on Israelis in recent days. In the past week, one of the bloodiest since violence erupted in September 2000, 66 people have died on the Palestinian side and 29 on the Israeli side.

The Cabinet also decided to tighten travel restrictions further, banning Palestinian traffic on most West Bank roads.The government said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon postponed next week's to Spain and England "in light of recent events."

In Washington, the US State Department called on Arafat to stop terrorism and on Israel to show maximum restraint. US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said there were no plans to send mediator Anthony Zinni back to the region. In two previous trips, Zinni failed to secure a truce.