Sharon: No relief for Gaza until rocket threat is neutralised  

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The Independent Online

Brigades of Israeli armour and infantry were digging in yesterday for a long stay in the northern Gaza Strip after Ariel Sharon told army radio that they would continue hunting Palestinian gunmen until they had removed the threat of rockets firing on Israeli towns.

Brigades of Israeli armour and infantry were digging in yesterday for a long stay in the northern Gaza Strip after Ariel Sharon told army radio that they would continue hunting Palestinian gunmen until they had removed the threat of rockets firing on Israeli towns.

Yesterday, his air and ground forces killed at least seven Palestinians, five of them fighters and two civilians, an 11-year-old boy and a mentally handicapped man. Palestinian doctors put the casualty toll at 66 dead - 43 militants and 23 civilians - and 240 wounded since Israel launched "Operation Days of Repentance" on Wednesday after a rocket strike on the town of Sderot, which killed two infants playing outside their home. Israel lost three soldiers and a civilian in the same period.

Foreign correspondents reported a swath of destruction in the Jebaliya refugee camp, Israel's prime target. Bulldozers had destroyed rows of homes, uprooted orchards and torn up roads. They demolished a kindergarten, scattering Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse posters. "We have 400 boys and girls who used to come here and play," Jaber Abu Oukal, its head teacher, said. "Now they will have nowhere to go but the street. Those kids will remember forever what the occupation did to their place, and who destroyed their toys and took the smile from their faces."

This is Israel's biggest, most lethal, offensive in Gaza since the intifada broke out four years ago. The declared aim is to drive the militants back so their primitive, homemade Qassam rockets, which have a range of nine kilometres, can no longer reach Sderot. The army also wants to convince the Palestinian authorities and public that they have more to lose than to gain by harassing towns and villages across the border.

Mr Sharon is determined to push ahead with his plan to evacuate 21 Jewish settlements from Gaza by the end of next year, but he is pounding Hamas and other militant groups to rebut their claim that Israel is retreating under fire.

Lieutenant-General Moshe Ya'alon, the chief of staff, said during a weekend visit to Israeli troops in northern Gaza: "We will continue until there will be no more Qassam rockets fired at Sderot. The goal is first to take Sderot out of range, then to make sure the other side thinks twice before firing at Israel."

In the most spectacular of yesterday's blows, an Israeli helicopter fired a missile into a group of Palestinian militants in the Jebaliya camp, killing two and seriously wounding a third, moments after they had launched a rocket from the back of a donkey cart. The rocket, which fell in open ground near Sderot, caused no casualties and no damage.

Mr Sharon told the media: "No one is allowed to attack the citizens of Israel, and I won't let it happen. We will not allow them to fire on our civilians, not now, not during the evacuation and not after it." Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that has lost 22 fighters in the past five days, vowed to continue its "holy war". Nafez Azzam, a spokesman for its sister organisation, Islamic Jihad, said: "This aggression is part of the war to kill the spirit of resistance and force us to accept an American-Israeli solution. These massacres will not end the struggle of the Palestinian people."

Israel and the United Nations were on a collision course yesterday after the army released aerial footage,which it said showed Hamas militants loading a Qassam rocket into a UN ambulance. Military sources said that the film was shot from an unmanned reconnaissance plane on Friday.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Israel would protest today to Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, and ask him to investigate the "abuse and misuse of UN vehicles and symbols by the terror organisations". Israel's ambassador to the UN, Dan Gilerman, wants Mr Annan to sack Peter Hansen, the Danish director of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which has been caring for Palestinian refugees since 1949. It has more than three million registered refugees in 59 camps throughout the Middle East.

Mr Hansen said UNRWA's analysis of the film clip showed "beyond the shadow of a doubt that the object carried and thrown into the vehicle is not and cannot be a Qassam rocket". He said that a Qassam weighs at least 32kg with a diameter of about 17cms. "On neither count does the object ... correspond in the least to this description. It is much thinner, longer and much lighter than a rocket. It is clearly a folded stretcher."

Major Sharon Feingold, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said the army was "101 per cent sure" it was a rocket. Qassams, she said, varied in size and weight. The smallest weighed barely 5kg, which would make it easy to throw one into the ambulance.

She said that the military had additional, but still classified, intelligence information confirming its interpretation. "We wouldn't have put it out otherwise," she added.

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