JERUSALEM – Palestinian militants fired six anti-tank missiles and a mortar round and opened up with light arms at a Jewish settlement in the
Gaza Strip early Friday, provoking Israeli threats of retaliation even as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators tried to salvage a four-month truce.
Three militants infiltrated an abandoned building near the Gaza settlement of Kfar Darom and fired at the community. An exchange of gunfire with Israeli troops securing the settlement ensued, two of the militants escaped, and the third was killed, the military said. No Israeli injuries were reported.
“This continued indifference and inaction by the
Palestinian Authority which allows these terrorists to operate in broad daylight and under their very nose allows these incidents to keep recurring,” government spokesman David Baker said after the attack. “Israel is obliged to provide security for its citizens and will take the necessary defensive measures if the Palestinian Authority continues to persist in this path.”
Three Palestinian groups — Hamas; the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, affiliated with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling
Fatah party; and the Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committees — carried out the attack jointly, Hamas said. The operation was in retaliation for Israeli military strikes against Palestinians, it said, confirming that one attacker was killed.
A senior Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hamas has been ratcheting up the violence in an effort to strengthen itself ahead of a showdown against the ruling Fatah party in Palestinian parliamentary elections, scheduled for mid-July.
About 100 Kfar Darom settlers marched early Friday afternoon toward the abandoned building, to set up a defensive position there. Israeli soldiers ordered them to turn back, and a scuffle between troops and settlers broke out.
Elsewhere in Gaza on Friday morning, Palestinians opened fire twice at Israeli soldiers on the Israeli-Egyptian border near Rafah in the Gaza Strip; and fired three mortar shells each at the Neve Deklaim and Netzarim settlements, the military said. Another mortar shell was lobbed in the direction of the western Negev, but landed in Gaza, near the security fence surrounding the strip, the military said. No injuries or damage were reported.
Against this background of escalated violence, the military, citing “security assessments,” closed the main transit point for cargo going in and out of Gaza.
Israeli-Palestinian clashes have dropped off sharply since the two sides declared a Feb. 8 truce, designed to end more than four years of conflict. But violence has persisted, with the latest round starting early Wednesday. Over the past three days, three Palestinians have been killed, and Palestinian militants have fired dozens of missiles, rockets and mortar shells at Jewish settlements in Gaza and Israel.
On Thursday, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz called military commanders in for consultations and let it be known that Israel would go back to targeting militants preparing to fire mortars — as it did Wednesday, killing a Hamas militant in Israel’s first air strike since the truce was announced.
Such raids would likely set off further violence by Hamas, which claims the right to retaliate for Israeli operations. Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said the group’s informal truce with Israel was still in effect, though “we are committed to defending ourselves in the face of any (Israeli) aggression in the West Bank and Gaza.”
Mofaz said during a closed meeting with security chiefs that Palestinian police were not fulfilling their obligations to stop the militants. Mofaz said he would not allow Israelis to be harmed and would exact a price for attacks by militants, meeting participants said.
But amid the tough talk were attempts to defuse the crisis. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Dov Weisglass, an aide to Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon, met Thursday to try to restore calm, a senior Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity.
Security officials said Mofaz plans to bring a list of 400 Palestinian prisoners to be freed before the Cabinet on May 29 — an apparent bid to shore up Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as he tries to restore order and heads into elections. Israel pledged to free the prisoners as part of the truce but stopped the process, accusing the Palestinians of not holding up their end of the deal.
The Palestinians have accused Israel of acting in bad faith.
A resurgence of violence now could postpone or scuttle Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank in the summer, some Israeli officials have warned, saying there would be no retreat under fire. International mediators hope that the pullout could lead to resumption of Mideast peace talks, frozen during the violence.