5 IDF soldiers killed in Gaza tunnel blast

Five members of the Israel Defense Forces Bedouin reconnaissance battalion were killed and six wounded in the Gaza Strip when a booby-trapped tunnel blew up under an army outpost near Rafah on Sunday. Early on Monday, in an apparent initial response to the bombing, Israel Air Force helicopter gunships fired around six missiles at targets in Gaza City early on Monday, hours after the Rafah attack. One of the missiles hit a metal foundry the army says is used by militants to produce munitions. There were no apparent casualties in the strike. The identities of the five soldiers killed are Sergeant Sayid Jaja, 19, from Ararah; Sergeant Araf al-Zabarga, 20, from Kseifeh; Tarek al-Zidaina, 20, from Rahat; Hussein Abu Lile, 23, from Ein-Mahl. Private Adham Samir Shehada, 19 from Tur’an, will be laid to rest in his village at 2.30 P.M. on Monday. Of the six injured, who were all hospitalized in the Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva, one was seriously wounded, and doctors said Monday his life was still in danger. Another four were moderately wounded and one lightly wounded. The soldiers killed one armed Palestinian who participated in the assault. Hamas and a Fatah faction, the Fatah Hawks, claimed joint responsibility for the attack, the most lethal of its kind since the start of the conflict. Government and defense sources said Israel would definitely respond to the attack, but in a „measured” fashion, which would not involve a large-scale ground operation. On one hand, they explained, Israel wants to be „very careful” in the run-up to January’s elections in the Palestinian Authority and the disengagement from Gaza, but on the other, it does not want to return to a policy of restraint in the face of attacks. In the pre-dawn hours Monday, loud explosions from IAF missiles woke residents from their sleep. Gaza City was plunged into darkness when one of the missiles hit a generator, cutting off electricity.

Military sources said the response would probably not include a freeze on the planned release of 100-200 Palestinian prisoners. However, closure of the Rafah border crossing for an extended period is a possibility. That would be a severe blow to Gaza residents, since with the Strip’s ports and airports closed, Rafah is their only gateway to the outside world. The attack began at about 5:30 P.M., when a bomb went off under the JVT outpost, located some 200 meters east of the Rafah crossing. The explosion, which destroyed the eastern part of the outpost, killed two soldiers and buried a third under the rubble; it also caused most of the injuries. The third soldier was later reported dead. Immediately afterward, two armed Palestinians penetrated the outpost from the west and shot and killed two other soldiers. Soldiers returned fire, killing one of the Palestinians, a Fatah operative. His companion, a Hamas operative, escaped, but was apparently wounded. Hamas said he escaped with a weapon belonging to one of the soldiers. Later, another bomb went off by an armored personnel carrier parked near the outpost, but caused no casualties. The wounded soldiers were evacuated to Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva, and rescue crews were brought in to start digging for the soldier buried under the rubble. The digging went on well into the night, under constant Palestinian fire. Helicopter gunships and other troops were sent in to provide cover for the rescue workers. Hamas told the Palestinian media that the tunnel under the outpost was some 250 meters long, and some 1.5 tons of explosives were used to blow it up. The IDF’s preliminary investigation confirmed these claims. The organization also said that preparations for the attack took about four months which undermines its claim that the operation was to avenge „the killing of the commander and symbol, Yasser Arafat.” The tunnel originated in the agricultural land east of Rafah an area where the IDF has conducted extensive operations, including tearing up trees and bushes, in an effort to prevent the digging of tunnels. Dozens of people were apparently involved in preparing the attack, which reflected a high level of planning and sophistication, IDF sources said. The fact that the tunnel was dug over the course of four months without being discovered was a serious intelligence failure, the sources admitted. They said that there is still a „black hole” in Israeli intelligence with regard to tunnel attacks. Another lapse uncovered by the preliminary inquiry into the incident was the failure of the outpost’s lookouts to spot the two Palestinian gunmen, who had neared the position even before the explosion. A senior officer in the IDF General Staff told Haaretz that Hamas appears to have begun a new offensive in Gaza over the past week. This has included the resumption of Qassam launches into Israel, though in limited quantities, and heavy mortar fire on the Gush Katif settlements. The IDF believes Hamas wants to provoke a massive Israeli response to foil the efforts by new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to calm the violence. In addition, IDF sources said, Hamas wants to accumulate public support in the run-up to January’s elections, even though it is not fielding a candidate. There were also several other incidents in the Gaza Strip on Sunday. A Qassam rocket fired from northern Gaza landed in an Israeli community inside the Green Line, damaging a car but causing no casualties. In addition, several mortar shells 12, according to the settlers were fired at Gaza settlements, but also caused no casualties. BPI-info