Israel gears up for possible Gaza offensive

Sunday, July 17, 2005; Posted: 1:23 p.m. EDT (17:23 GMT)

(CNN) -- Israeli soldiers and tanks were poised Sunday along the border with Gaza, preparing to make good on a threat to carry out a large-scale offensive if rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian militants are not halted.

Palestinians said such action would be disastrous to the peace process and to the approaching pullout of Israel from Gaza settlements.

Despite Palestinian concerns, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday said Israel is prepared to act if the violence does not stop.

Palestinians fired a mortar Sunday that hit a house in the Gaza settlement of Neve Dekalim, wounding four people, the Israeli military said.

Also in Gaza, Israeli helicopters fired into a car carrying Hamas members, Palestinian officials said. And Israeli soldiers killed a Hamas commander and a Palestinian seen approaching a Jewish settlement, according to the Israeli army.

Asked about the buildup over the weekend, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim told Israel Radio: "We are going for a large-scale operation in Gaza. It depends on what evolves over the coming hours. It is a matter of hours. We will not tolerate this barrage."

The developments follow several days of tension and violence, jeopardizing a February cease-fire agreement reached by Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

The Israeli military said that since Thursday, Palestinian militants had fired 35 crude rockets toward Israeli towns inside Israel, and 90 mortars at Gaza settlements. An Israeli woman was killed last week when a rocket struck a home north of Gaza.

"This is a very dangerous statement," said Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator, in response to Boim. "If this threat is carried out and the Israeli army carries out an incursion into Gaza, this will have a disastrous impact on the disengagement itself."

Erakat said the Palestinians were attempting to stop military escalation "because these policies are also undermining our efforts in the Palestinian Authority to re-establish the rule of law."

But, Sharon said: "I spoke to the heads of the defense establishment and once again reiterated the order that there is no restriction on our operations to stop the attacks on the communities inside Gaza and along the border with Gaza. We don't intend in any way to allow this situation."

Violence on Sunday
Israeli helicopters on Sunday fired missiles into a Volkswagen carrying Hamas militants in Beit Lahiya, north of Gaza City, Palestinian security officials told CNN. The occupants of the vehicle escaped, but one was slightly wounded, the Palestinian security officials said.

Israeli army officials confirmed that Israeli aircraft fired at a car carrying militants, saying those militants were involved in firing rockets at Israeli communities.

In another incident, Israeli military officials said troops shot and killed a Palestinian they identified approaching the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the central Gaza Strip.

The officials said troops spotted two armed Palestinians near the settlement, and called on them to stop. The troops opened fire after one of men drew a handgun, the officials said.

The second Palestinian escaped, the officials added. Palestinian sources did not immediately comment on the incident.

Palestinians fired a mortar that hit a house in Neve Dekalim settlement Sunday, wounding four people -- two of them seriously, according to an Israel Defense Forces spokesman and ambulance service sources.

Earlier in the day, Saeed Seam, a commander of the Hamas military wing Izzedine al Qassam, was killed by Israeli army fire as he stood outside his Gaza home in Khan Yunis, Palestinian security sources said.

The Israeli military confirmed the death, saying it was a targeted killing and that Seam, 31, had been involved in mortar attacks, explosives attacks on soldiers and shooting at settlers over the past few years.

He was a senior member of the Khan Yunis Hamas infrastructure, the military said, and was involved in an attack on an army outpost in June 2004 that killed soldiers and in a 2002 shooting attack that killed two settlers.

The Israeli military believes Seam was involved in directing mortar fire, the Israel Defense Forces said.

Settler removal planned for August
Israel plans to remove Jewish settlers and the Israeli troops who guard them from Gaza and parts of the West Bank by mid-August.

Sharon announced plans last year to close 21 settlements and move about 8,000 Israelis from Gaza, which is also home to about 1.3 million Palestinians.

The withdrawal plan has generated anger among Israeli settlers and their supporters, who have staged protests and scuffled with police and Palestinians in recent weeks.

On Saturday, Israelis arrested 30 Palestinians they said were suspected militants, members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. (Full story)

Late Friday, the Israeli air force carried out strikes on what Israel said were three Hamas weaponry laboratories, just hours after launching precision strikes that Palestinian sources said killed seven Hamas members.

Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization, has a military wing Izzedine al Qassam, which has carried out deadly attacks on Israeli civilians and the Israeli military.

-- CNN Producer Shira Medding contributed to this report.