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Israeli tanks enter Gaza, one Palestinian dead
Updated: 2004-06-29 11:47

Under the cover of intense machine gun fire, Israeli tanks and bulldozers blocked roads in the northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday -- the start of what security officials said could be an extended reoccupation of some Palestinian areas to prevent rocket fire on Israel.

One Palestinian was killed and one wounded, security officials said.

Israeli tanks enter Gaza, one Palestinian dead 
Palestinians and firefighters stand in rubble in the street following an Israeli helicopter missile strike in Gaza City, early Tuesday June 29, 2004. Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a 16-story building and a metal workshop in Gaza early Tuesday, in response to two extraordinary attacks by Palestinian militants -- a rocket barrage that killed an Israeli toddler and a huge blast that ripped through an army outpost. [AP]

The military operation came in response to a Palestinian rocket attack on the Israeli border town of Sderot that killed a 49-year-old man and a 3-year-old boy outside two nursery schools. It marked the first time in nearly four years of fighting that the crude homemade missiles killed Israelis.

Over the weekend, Palestinian militants also blasted an army outpost in the heart of Gaza with hundreds of kilograms of explosives, killing a soldier. Hamas claimed responsibility for both attacks, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades said it participated in blowing up the outpost.

In an initial response to the pair of extraordinary attacks, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a Hamas-linked media center in a 16-story building in Gaza City and a metal workshop in a refugee camp early Tuesday. The army said rockets were being made at the workshop.

The army also blew up an empty eight-story building and razed 15 homes near the outpost. The demolitions left about 60 Palestinians homeless.

Despite the upsurge in violence, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday he remains determined to go ahead with his planned withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Addressing lawmakers, Sharon pledged to speed up the evacuation of settlers who are ready to leave voluntarily.

However, Israel's vice premier, Ehud Olmert, said that despite the planned withdrawal, "there is a war against terror, and we shall continue fighting terror regardless of disengagement."

Early Tuesday, Israeli tanks and bulldozers rumbled into northern Gaza, including the town of Beit Hanoun, blocking roads under intense cover of machine gun fire from helicopters. There was no return fire from Palestinians, witnesses said.

Beit Hanoun was repeatedly targeted in army raids in the past. The town is less than two kilometers (one mile) from Sderot, and militants have repeatedly launched missiles from the area. In previous raids, the army demolished scores of homes and uprooted thousands of trees, saying it was trying to deprive those firing rockets of cover. Residents said at the time the destruction, which turned large patches into wasteland, was wanton.

Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said troops would likely stay in northern Gaza for an extended period, to prevent rocket fire at all cost. Broad public support in Israel for Sharon's withdrawal plan would likely be weakened by continued rocketing from Gaza.

In Sunday's outpost attack, militants dug a 350-meter (1,000-foot) tunnel and detonated hundreds of kilograms (pounds) of explosives, killing a soldier and wounding five. Following the blast, two Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, and two more were shot dead early Monday in Gaza.

About 2,5000 Hamas supporters celebrated the outpost attack in a rally Monday evening in the Gaza refugee camp of Jabaliya, and speakers said attacks on Israel would continue.

Video footage of the digging of the tunnel and the firing of a rocket _ not Monday's -- was screened on an outside wall. The video showed two masked men crawling through a tunnel and planting explosives next to a pile of gas canisters.

Sharon's "unilateral disengagement" plan calls for the evacuation of all Gaza Strip settlements -- where some 7,500 Israelis live among 1.3 million Palestinians -- and four West Bank enclaves by September 2005.

Sharon has said his plan will improve Israel's security by reducing friction with the Palestinians. But more violence is expected ahead of the pullout, to be completed by the end of 2005.

Palestinian militants want to step up attacks so they can portray the withdrawal as a hasty retreat by Israel. The military, in turn, hopes to strike hard at armed groups to prevent any gloating and weaken their ability to attack Israel after a pullback.

Eran Lehrman, an Israeli military analyst, said the latest violence could complicate the pullout. "If this continues, Israel will have to hold on to parts of Gaza until it can stop the rocket attacks on Sderot," he said.

Still, he said he expects Israel to find a military solution for the attacks, allowing the pullout to proceed next year.

Hassan Al Kashif, a Palestinian political analyst in Gaza, said the militants had a few advantages, including strong motivation and Gaza's terrain. "The tiny size of Gaza and dense population makes it difficult for the Israeli army to enter the area without risking heavy losses," he said.

Sharon told a closed-door meeting of legislators that he remained committed to the withdrawal.

Participants said Sharon told them he has decided to speed up the voluntary evacuation of settlers by making advance payments on compensation available in the near future, ahead of a previous August target.

Knesset spokesman Giora Pordes said the compensation process would begin "soon," but said a timeline still isn't set.

In Sderot, anger was at a fever pitch following the rocket attack, which came as parents dropped off their children at the Lilach and Yasmin nursery schools.

The victims were identified as 3-year-old Afik Zahavi, who was on his way to nursery school, and Mordechai Yosopov, 49. Afik's mother, Ruth, was hospitalized in critical condition, and 10 other people sustained minor injuries. Sderot, about two miles (three kilometers) from Gaza, has been a frequent target of rocket attacks. Sharon also owns a ranch in the area.

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