Israel cracks down on Hamas, Islamic Jihad
Amid new offensive, Hamas official says group will cease attacks from Gaza

Click Here

Updated: 6:14 p.m. ET Sept. 25, 2005

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israel pressed forward with a broad offensive against Islamic militants on Sunday, killing an Islamic Jihad commander in a pinpoint airstrike in the Gaza Strip and rounding up more than 200 wanted Palestinians. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised to use “all means” against the militants.

The offensive, coming just two weeks after Israel withdrew from Gaza, followed a wave of militant rocket attacks against Israeli towns over the weekend. Israel has promised to continue with its airstrikes, arrests and a possible ground invasion until the rocket fire ceases.

“There shall be no restrictions on the use of all means to hit the terrorists and the terror organizations, their equipment and their hideouts,” Sharon told his Cabinet Sunday. “The order is unequivocal.”

Late Sunday, a top Hamas leader in Gaza said his group would halt the rocket fire. Israeli officials said they would wait to see if things remained quiet before calling off the offensive.

“The movement declares an end to its operations from the Gaza Strip against the Israeli occupation, which came ... in response to the assaults by the enemy,” Hamas’s most senior leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, told reporters in Gaza.

There was no immediate comment from Israeli officials.

Meanwhile, gunmen opened fire late Sunday at the home of the spokesman of the Palestinian Interior Ministry, the agency that oversees Palestinian security forces.

The spokesman, Tawfiq Abu Khoussa, who was home at the time, said he was not hurt.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack, Hamas has been upset with Abu Khoussa for saying a deadly explosion at a Hamas rally last week was caused by the mishandling of explosives.

Israel planning larger offensive?
Israeli security officials said the military was preparing for possible artillery attacks and a ground invasion unless the Palestinian Authority or Hamas itself halts the rocket attacks.

The army fired several artillery rounds into empty fields in northern Gaza in preparation for a possible attack, the military said. The firing was intended as a drill to determine possible coordinates for a future attack and there were no immediate reports of injuries.

The new offensive dubbed “Operation First Rain” dashed hopes that Israel’s recently completed Gaza withdrawal would help restart peace talks and left a seven-month-old cease-fire teetering on the brink of collapse.

The missile attack hit a Mercedes carrying Mohammed Khalil, Islamic Jihad’s top militant leader in southern Gaza, said a group spokesman known as Abu Abdullah.

Health officials said one militant was killed and two other people were wounded in the attack. Palestinian Interior Ministry officials said two were killed and four were wounded.

Atef Qatrous, 22, said he was leaving work when he saw a missile hit the car. One of those inside was decapitated and another was badly wounded, he said.

The army confirmed it launched an airstrike.

Pressure on Abbas, Sharon, rival factions
The fighting turned up already intense pressure on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to confront militants and weakened Sharon as he parries a challenge to his leadership.

A group of senior Israeli Cabinet officials, led by Sharon, approved the military operation at an emergency meeting late Saturday after Hamas militants fired nearly 40 rockets from Gaza at southern Israeli towns. The rocket barrage, which injured six Israelis, was the Islamic group’s first major attack since Israel concluded its Gaza pullout two weeks ago.

Amid rising tensions, senior Hamas leader Zahar on late Sunday said the militant group, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, would abide by a truce that militant groups declared in March and said they would honor until the end of the year by request of Abbas.

Zahar said the decision to end attacks from Gaza was due to “Hamas’s interest to protect the Palestinian people from the oppression of the Zionists and to preserve the atmosphere of celebrations at the defeat of the occupation.”

Scores arrested
But in a further sign the truce was unraveling, the Israeli military arrested 207 wanted Palestinian men in the West Bank overnight, most of them members of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements. The military has conducted sweeping arrests of Islamic Jihad militants since the February cease-fire with Palestinians. But this is the first time it has detained large numbers of Hamas members.

Among those arrested were Hassan Yousef and Mohammed Ghazal, two of the most prominent Hamas leaders in the West Bank, Hamas officials said.

Maj. Gen. Yisrael Ziv, the head of military operations, hinted Israel was preparing to resume assassinations of top Hamas leaders, a practice suspended after the February cease-fire. Asked whether the leaders were in danger, he said: “Let them decide for themselves.”

Israel killed dozens of Hamas leaders, including the group’s founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, during more than four years of violence.

Ziv later told Army Radio that a ground operation was not being planned yet. But if one is deemed necessary, “then we won’t refrain.”

‘Back to square one’
Abbas said the Palestinians were asking the U.S. government to pressure Israel to stop its actions.

“We’re back to square one, now we need time to regain calm. Our people need a quiet life and to make a living,” he said Sunday.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Abbas on Saturday evening and urged him to preserve the truce and stop the situation from deteriorating further, Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said.

Rice also spoke several times with Israeli officials in recent days, new U.S. Ambassador to Israel Richard H. Jones said.

“We understand the terrorists are trying to provoke Israel at this sensitive time, we understand the Israeli position and the response it has taken,” he said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.