ISRAELI TROOPS PUSH FARTHER INTO GAZA TO HALT ROCKETS
By GREG MYRE and STEVEN ERLANGER
Published: July 6, 2006
GAZA, Thursday, July 6 — Large numbers of Israeli tanks and troops moved deeper
into northern Gaza early this morning to take up new positions
near former Israeli settlements, abandoned and destroyed a year ago.
The deeper incursion, by tanks and armored personnel carriers with their
headlights off, began just before 2 a.m., hours after the government ordered the military to expand its operations against
Hamas in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The goal is to free a captured Israeli soldier
and halt Palestinian rocket fire that has begun to penetrate deeper into Israel.
On Wednesday, two Palestinian rockets fired
from Gaza struck Ashkelon; another had landed there the day
before. Hamas took responsibility for the attacks. No serious injuries were reported.
Israeli officials said the security cabinet,
meeting in special session, did not specifically authorize the establishment of a long-term buffer zone within northern Gaza.
But the previous troop position, about half
a mile inside the border, did little to prevent more rocket fire into Israel.
Plans originally drawn up by the army called for a deeper incursion into northern Gaza, along
with the current deployment in southern Gaza near Rafah, where
the captured soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, is believed to be held.
On Wednesday night, two Palestinians, a policeman
and a Hamas militant, were killed by an Israeli shell near Sudania beach in northern Gaza,
according to Palestinian officials. The Hamas militant was laying a mine near a police barracks when Israel fired a shell and a missile at him, also wounding seven Palestinian policemen.
Early Thursday, another Hamas militant was killed in an airstrike, Reuters reported.
A journalist and a driver from Al Jazeera television
were reportedly wounded when their car was fired upon by Palestinian militants in Beit Hanoun who believed they were undercover
The two-engine Qassam rocket that hit Ashkelon
on Tuesday evening was fired from the rubble of former Israeli settlements in northern Gaza
and traveled seven and a half miles, according to the Israeli Army. By contrast, the range of the single-engine rockets fired
by militants is less than six miles, although they also possess some industrially manufactured Katyusha rockets, with a range
of almost 14 miles.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking at a Fourth
of July party at the home of the American ambassador to Israel, Richard
H. Jones, called the first Hamas rocket to hit Ashkelon, a city of some 115,000 people and
the site of a major power plant, "an escalation without precedent." Hamas warned that its arsenal contained other surprises.
The Israeli cabinet said in its communiqué,
"Against the background of the abduction and the continued firing of rockets and mortars, including the firing of a Qassam
rocket at Ashkelon, preparations must be made in order to bring about a change in the rules of the game and in the modus operandi
vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority and Hamas." Hamas won legislative elections in January.
Isaac Herzog, a Labor Party minister in the
security cabinet, said in an interview: "We want to use an iron fist, but cautiously, with a lot of consideration, to meet
two parallel objectives: a stop to the missiles and the safe release of Gilad Shalit. We're not trying to change the world
or the political structure of the Palestinian Authority, but everyone affiliated with terror will not be let off."
Asked about the Hamas government, Mr. Herzog
said: "We see them as participating in terror. There is no difference between the political and military wings of Hamas, as
they themselves say."
Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador
to Washington and now president of Tel Aviv University, said, "The Qassam in the middle of Ashkelon is a dramatic escalation
that requires any Israeli prime minister to respond or escalate in a dramatic way."
In its communiqué, the cabinet told the army
to "continue to section off the Gaza Strip" to reduce the movement of militants, and to continue to hit "infrastructures that
serve terrorism," while "avoiding — as much as possible — harming the civilian population."
But Prime Minister Olmert is caught between
his strong language and his efforts to press the Hamas government, let alone the militants holding the corporal, to do Israel's will without negotiating any quid pro quo, like a
release of prisoners.
The Hamas military wing is one of the three
groups holding the corporal, but appears to be beyond control of the government. Instead, it seems to be taking instructions
from an exiled Hamas leader in Syria,
Khaled Meshal. The Hamas government has not urged the militants to release Corporal Shalit, only to treat him well.
In the Gaza Strip, at Khan Yunis, a Hamas legislator,
Salah Bardawil, said he believed that the crisis could still be resolved if Israel agreed to release Palestinian prisoners.
"They wouldn't have to release all the prisoners, but at least the humanitarian cases, such as the women and children," he
Mr. Bardawil, a spokesman for the Hamas faction
in the Legislature, said Israel's actions
were increasing the popularity of Hamas. "Israel
wants us to raise our hands in surrender," he said. "But the Palestinian people, led by Hamas, have developed a strong psyche.
The more pressure we face, the more we will be steadfast and resist."
In the Zeitoun neighborhood in Gaza City, two militants were killed, apparently
when an explosive they were preparing went off prematurely, Palestinian security officials said. Israel
also closed the crossings between Gaza and Israel,
but the Erez crossing, on the northern border, was opened briefly late Wednesday to allow some foreigners, including journalists,
Asked if Hamas could govern in any meaningful
way when faced with this Israeli pressure, Mr. Bardawil said: "Even if the government collapses, we wouldn't lose much. The
main thing would be stripping away the deception that the Palestinians have had a real government" since 1994. "A government
that receives its budget as charity is not a real state."