US warns Israel of escalation,00.html

Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
December 30, 2005

THE US has warned Israel it risks a serious escalation in a continuing artillery showdown with Palestinian militants by establishing a no-go zone in the northern Gaza Strip.

The buffer zone came into effect yesterday after a week of rocket barrages fired towards southern Israel from sections of Gaza that were handed back to the Palestinians after the Israeli military pullout in August.

Israeli tanks and artillery batteries fired at least 30 shells into Gaza yesterday in the biggest military operation it has mounted since the withdrawal.

Operation Blue Skies was targeting militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who routinely fire improvised rockets, known as Qassams.

Before the barrage, leaflets were dropped to Palestinian civilians warning them to leave the area and not to return until further notice.

"For your own safety, you are warned not to enter the areas designated on the attached map starting December 28, 6pm, until further notice," read the leaflet. "Whoever ignores this warning is putting his life in real danger."

The Israeli Defence Force claimed to have shelled six launching sites and a bridge yesterday, with no injuries reported.

Both militant groups have been working to improve the range and accuracy of their rockets, which are made in vehicle workshops and equipped with primitive guidance systems.

They claim to have recently improved the propulsion of the Qassams from 6km to 9km, which would bring Israeli border towns into range.

A third group, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, once formally aligned with former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah political movement, claimed recently to have developed an improvised rocket with a 25km range. However, the claim has been dismissed by Israel.

Israel hopes the creation of the buffer zone will push launchsites back far enough to prevent them from being able to target Israeli towns, such as the light industrial area of Ashkelon, which has been hit by more than 10 rockets in the past three months.

The US has also condemned the Palestinian Authority for failing to rein in the militants or stopping them setting up missile launchsites inside Gaza.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas won a decisive electoral mandate when he took over in November last year after Arafat's death, but has been unable to transform it into assertive authority.

The US and Israel believe the PA is preoccupied with the lead-up to Palestinian elections scheduled for January 25, and doesn't want to risk cracking down on militant groups at a time when their electoral support may be needed.

However, the US and several of Israel's Arab neighbours fear the buffer zone amounts to a partial reoccupation of Gaza, because it denies Palestinian citizens freedom of movement through areas their Government now commands after 38 years of Israeli military occupation.

"Israel has left the Gaza Strip and has no right to come back," Mr Abbas said from Gaza yesterday. "They should not make any pretext."

In further violence, an Israeli soldier was killed last night when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up near a West Bank checkpoint, Israeli medical and security sources said.

Two other Palestinians were also killed by the blast, which came after the bomber was stopped at a checkpoint near the northern town of Tulkarem.