GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel killed four Hamas militants in a missile strike Saturday and moved artillery cannons to the Gaza border, launching what it vowed would be a “crushing” response to a Hamas rocket barrage on Israeli towns.
Israel also sealed the West Bank and Gaza, barring all Palestinians from its territory, within hours of the Hamas attack — the group’s first major violence since Israel withdrew from the Mediterranean coastal strip two weeks ago.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called his Security Cabinet for a meeting later Saturday to approve the military action, expected to last several days. A large-scale operation appeared unlikely but the timing of the meeting suggested a sense of urgency.
The Cabinet session comes as Sharon faces a major leadership challenge in his Likud Party over the Gaza withdrawal, completed two weeks ago. Sharon’s challenger, former Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu, has warned the pullout will endanger Israel, and the barrage of 39 rockets, with five Israelis wounded, could boost his agenda.
The escalation followed an explosion Friday at a Hamas rally at a crowded Palestinian refugee camp that killed at least 15 Palestinians. Witnesses said the blast went off near a pickup truck carrying masked militants and homemade rockets.
Hamas blamed Israel and said it fired rockets on Israeli border towns in retaliation. But the
Palestinian Authority said the blast was an accident resulting from militants mishandling explosives. It renewed demands that armed groups stop flaunting their weapons.
In its struggle to bring order to Gaza, the Palestinian Authority won agreement from militant groups for a ban on displaying weapons starting late Saturday. Hassan Yousef, a Hamas leader, said the group would abide by the ban. “There will be no military parades in the streets and Hamas weapons will go into the shadows,” he said.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met Saturday with the army chief and the head of the Shin Bet security service to formulate Israel’s response. “We have to make it clear to the Palestinians that Israel will not let the recent events pass without a response,” Mofaz said in a statement. “The response needs to be crushing.”
Mofaz ordered large numbers of ground forces to deploy near northern Gaza, from where most rockets have been launched. Security officials said thousands of soldiers have been called up.
On Saturday afternoon, Israeli aircraft fired five missiles at two cars in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, killing four Hamas militants, according to medics, witnesses and Palestinian radio reports. Nine people were wounded.
Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath denounced the strike as an “act of criminal aggression” and accused Israel of trying to destroy a truce that largely has held since February.
In an unprecedented step, Israel also set up five artillery cannons on the Gaza border, guarded by seven armored personnel carriers. Soldiers appeared to be settling in, building a command post and rolling out barbed wire.
Israel in the past retaliated for Palestinian rocket fire with airstrikes or ground incursions. Artillery fire is less precise, however, and artillery shells fired into densely populated Gaza could cause many casualties. Israel appeared to be signaling it is determined to stop the rocket fire at any price.
At another border staging area, four armored personnel carriers, five tanks and four huge D-9 bulldozers joined a fleet of about 30 armored vehicles that are regularly deployed there.
Friday’s explosion brought a terrifying end to what became the last militant victory celebration of Israel’s Gaza pullout before the weapons ban takes effect. Abbas’ ruling
Fatah movement canceled a final rally planned for Saturday.
The exact number of casualties from the Jabaliya camp remained unclear Saturday. Doctors at two Gaza hospitals counted 15 dead and 83 wounded, but the Palestinian health ministry put the toll at 17 dead and 140 wounded, possibly due to duplicate hospital registration during the initial chaos.
About 10,000 mourners attended prayers for 10 of the dead at a Jebaliya mosque Saturday. After the ceremony, the crowd split into three processions, with Hamas holding a separate march for four of its dead. Gunmen shot in the air, and women watching from balconies threw rice into the crowd.
The deadly rally appeared to put Hamas on the defensive for the first time since the Israeli withdrawal; it also gave Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas greater leverage to enforce the weapons ban.
Islamic militants took center-stage after Israel’s withdrawal, holding military-style victory parades, and many Palestinians endorsed the militants’ claim that they had driven Israel out by force.
Now, Israel’s reprisals have caused new hardships for Palestinian civilians, who might blame Hamas.
Israel’s indefinite closure of the West Bank and Gaza, imposed Saturday, means thousands of Palestinian laborers won’t be able to reach jobs in Israel. Many Gazans also had hoped for a return to calm after Israel’s pullout and might not be willing to tolerate a new era of airstrikes.
Abbas, meanwhile, is under growing pressure to stop the rocket fire, with Israel demanding he deploy his troops in northern Gaza, the favored rocket launching ground. This could force Abbas into confrontations with Hamas that he has been trying to avoid.