IDF thwarts attack on Gaza Strip settlement

Israel Defense Forces troops thwarted a multi-pronged Palestinian attack on the Gaza Strip settlement of Kfar Darom before dawn Friday, killing one of the militants in an exchange of fire. The attempted attack is the latest episode in a recent escalation of Palestinian shelling in the Strip. There were no Israeli casualties, although the IDF said the attack was intended to cause many deaths. On Friday afternoon, dozens of Kfar Darom residents marched to the neighboring village of Dir al-Balah, where the attack originated, to protest the shelling. The protesters were heading toward the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) building where they said the militants had been hiding. The IDF closed the Karni industrial zone on the Gaza-Israel border due to terror threats a short time after the attack, Israel Radio reported. The IDF also lifted a closure on the northern West Bank that had been in place for 10 days, since Memorial Day eve. Hamas said it carried out the attack in cooperation with the Fatah-linked Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and the Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella group of armed factions. In the last two years, multiple Palestinian groups have coordinated several other multi-pronged attacks in Gaza, mainly at the Erez and Karni crossings. Gaza brigade commander Col. Moti Kidor said Friday that Palestinian police officers spotted the militants but did nothing to prevent them from opening fire on Kfar Darom, Israel Radio reported. Early Friday, three Palestinian militants infiltrated an abandoned building near Kfar Darom and fired mortar shells and at least six anti-tank missiles at the settlement. They also opened light arms fire. Following an exchange of gunfire with IDF troops securing the area, one of the militants was killed. The other two, one of whom was wounded in the gun battle, escaped. The mortar fire was intended as a diversion tactic to cover the Palestinians approaching the settlement and firing anti-tank missiles, military sources said. The militants were also seen with a bomb that had not been detonated. Palestinians also fired at least 10 mortar shells at settlements and IDF posts overnight throughout the Strip, Israel Radio reported. Sharon approves gestures to PA Despite the continued barrage of mortar shells and rockets, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Thursday approved a series of gestures to the Palestinians, over the objections of the Shin Bet security service. Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin opposed the proposal to approve the gestures, on the grounds that there are too many warnings of terror attacks. But the IDF supported the decision. At a meeting with Mofaz on Thursday, senior officers warned that if Israel did not act to strengthen Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, „he’ll fall, and then we’ll have to give more abatements to Hamas, which will gain power in his stead.” The measures, which will be brought to the cabinet for approval after Sharon returns from the United States later this month, involve steps that Israel originally promised at February’s Sharm el-Sheikh summit: freeing an additional 400 Palestinian prisoners, allowing the return of wanted Palestinians deported to Europe following the standoff at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in 2002, and allowing the return of Palestinians deported from the West Bank to Gaza. The U.S. security coordinator, General William Ward, had pressured Israel to take these steps in recent days. „You complain that the Palestinians are not fulfilling their commitments,” he told his Israeli interlocutors. „But what about your commitments?” The decision to approve these steps now is also related to Abbas’ planned visit to Washington Thursday. Thereby, Sharon hopes to deflect Abbas’ expected complaint to U.S. President George W. Bush that Israel is not helping him. Sharon approved the gestures despite the ongoing escalation in Gaza. Palestinians fired at least 14 mortars at the Gush Katif settlements on Thursday, and four Qassam rockets landed in Israel – including one in the courtyard of Sderot’s municipal offices. The shelling caused property damage, but no casualties. Palestinians also shot, and launched antitank missiles, at IDF troops in Gaza. The IDF did not respond to the shelling, even though the government has authorized it to respond to mortar and rocket launches, particularly if Hamas seems to be trying to cause escalation. Israeli intelligence believes that while Hams does want some escalation in the run-up to new local elections in Rafah, it also does not want the cease-fire to collapse. Thursday’s shelling, therefore, was not carried out by Hamas, but by other Palestinian factions – primarily the Popular Resistance Committees, a Fatah breakaway, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It is possible that Hamas is financing, or even giving orders for, shelling by other groups, army sources added, but Hamas leaders seem to want to end the current round of violence – which is why Israel responded to the shelling mainly with threats rather than action. Hamas did not even attack, as the IDF had expected it would, when a Hamas operative wounded by an IDF air strike Wednesday died of his wounds on Thursday. Despite the Gaza escalation, the IDF believes that abatements should continue in the West Bank, because the PA has begun security coordination with Israel – albeit not against the terrorist organizations. The army proposes removing roadblocks and allowing more West Bank residents to work in Israel. It also recommends preparing to hand Qalqilyah over to the PA once the latter makes progress on collecting weapons from wanted men in the two cities it already controls, Jericho and Tul Karm. Weissglas meets Erekat On Thursday evening, Sharon’s advisor Dov Weissglas met with Palestinian Minister Saeb Erekat and called for an immediate halt to shelling attacks by Palestinian militants. Weissglas warned Erekat that if the Palestinians continue shelling Israeli targets in and around the Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces will respond harshly. Palestinian sources said Weissglas told Erekat, however, that the IDF won’t escalate the fighting in the Gaza Strip. The two also agreed in principle to a June meeting between Sharon and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. BPI-info