GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli leader Ariel Sharon vowed on Sunday to expand a huge offensive into Gaza that has killed 50 Palestinians until militants stop firing rockets into Israel.
Sharon needs to show he can stop rocket strikes like one that killed two Israeli toddlers last Wednesday so as to counter critics who say his plan to pull out troops and settlers from the occupied strip will encourage more attacks.
In one of the biggest and bloodiest Israeli raids in four years of conflict, nearly 200 tanks and armored vehicles seized 9 square km (3 square miles) of the north Gaza Strip and pushed deep into the teeming Jabalya refugee camp, a militant hotbed.
Sharon said the army would expand the “buffer zone” in northern Gaza to spare Israeli towns from rocket attacks and ensure there was no withdrawal under fire next year.
“Evacuating the Gaza Strip is a plan that will be carried out and all orders have been given to ensure that there will be no fire at the time of the evacuation and I believe not after that either,” he told Army Radio.
Hamas Islamic militants, sworn to destroy Israel, have vowed to keep firing Qassam rockets despite the four-day offensive and to fire them deeper into the Jewish state.
Israeli troops killed three militants from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad faction group early Sunday, taking the death toll to 50 over four days. The army said it opened fire when it saw the men planting a bomb.
At least 31 of the Palestinian dead were militants, but civilians also died. Three Israelis have been killed, two soldiers and a woman jogger.
Gunbattles subsided as the army strengthened its grip on Jabalya. Wary of Israeli drones buzzing overhead to direct fire, fighters tried to keep undercover, detonating hidden bombs. Residents in the town of 100,000 said they were terrified.
“We are short of water and food. Children cannot sleep because of the gunfire,” said Abu Ahmad.
Armored bulldozers also pushed into nearby Beit Lahiya, demolishing olive groves, citrus orchards and buildings the army says are used as cover for firing rockets. Palestinians call the demolitions collective punishment.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s leadership has condemned the Israeli raid as “ugly state terror and war crimes.”
But it also signaled militants should stop rocket attacks, saying they give Israelis “the pretext to pursue their crimes.”
Militant factions are bent on giving the impression that they drove Israel out of the Gaza Strip if there is a pullout from the territory occupied since the 1967 war. Israel’s army is determined to smash them first.
Vowing to “teach the enemy an unforgettable lesson,” Hamas has threatened to use its rockets to hit Ashkelon, the closest major Israeli city, 12 km (7.5 miles) up the coast from Gaza.
Israeli security sources believe Ashkelon is too far away to face a major threat, though the Qassams — inaccurate and rarely deadly — are constantly being improved in Gaza workshops. Only one has reached Ashkelon, hitting an industrial zone last year but causing no damage.