Israel prepares response to rocket attack on military camp

THE ISRAELI GOVERNMENT came under increasing pressure Tuesday to respond harshly to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip after an overnight barrage wounded dozens of soldiers as they slept in their tents at an Israeli army base.

Despite the violence, US officials urged Israel to show restraint, fearing heavy action in Gaza could jeopardise new momentum in peace efforts.

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been facing growing calls to respond to the near-daily rocket attacks out of Gaza.

Israel has limited its response to brief, limited ground incursions and air strikes said to be aimed at rocket-launching squads.

But after Tuesday’s attack, along with a rocket last week that exploded near a crowded nursery school in the southern town of Sderot, many Israelis are growing impatient.

“The question is not whether to create deterrence, but when,” Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, a member of Olmert’s ruling Kadima Party, told Israel Radio.

Olmert held a regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday with top security officials, where they discussed the attack. Officials said Israel decided to hold off on major military action for the time being, though it might step up its air attacks on fighters.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed, said Israel is hesitant about opening a second front at a time of rising tensions with Syria.

Israeli military officials confirmed Tuesday that the army is on high alert along the Syrian border amid allegations by Syria that Israeli aircraft entered Syrian airspace last week.

Israel has refused to comment on last Thursday’s incident. The army is also reluctant to mobilise large numbers of troops during the Jewish New Year holiday, which begins Wednesday.

Officials also are wary of damaging recent progress in peace efforts ahead of the US conference, expected in November.

In the meantime, some Israeli leaders have urged Israel to consider nonmilitary steps, such as cutting off fuel and power to Gaza.

“I think we have tools to do this, tools that are not only military,” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told a news conference in Jerusalem.

In Washington, the US State Department urged restraint. “We would only counsel, in this case Israel which has suffered injuries and losses as a result of attacks, to take into consideration the effects of what they might do in self-defence on the overall political process,” spokesman Sean McCormack said.

The Gaza Strip is controlled by Hamas, an Islamic group that seized the area in June after a five-day standoff with the rival Fateh movement of President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel has no relations with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group, while it has embraced a new pro-Western government formed by Abbas in the West Bank.

Olmert and Abbas held the latest in a series of meetings Monday, agreeing to set up senior negotiating teams. The sides are hoping to reach a general outline of a final peace deal in time for the conference.

Abbas has repeatedly condemned the rocket fire, saying it threatens the peace process. But he holds little sway in Gaza following the Hamas takeover. The rocket exploded in the army base around 2:00am Tuesday, spraying shrapnel that wounded more than 40 soldiers as they were sleeping at a base just north of the Gaza border.

One soldier remained in critical condition and 11 others were in serious condition, the army said, adding that its ground forces struck back at the area fighters used for the Tuesday attack, but a Gaza health ministry official, Dr Moaiya Hassanain, said four civilians, including two children, were wounded.

Two small groups, the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, claimed responsibility.

However, Israel held Hamas responsible for the violence, since the movement controls Gaza and has done nothing to halt the attacks. “It doesn’t matter which terror group took responsibility. Gaza is totally controlled by Hamas, and it has the ability to stop this and decided not to,” said Livni, the Israeli foreign minister.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum praised Tuesday’s attack as a “victory from God”. In Gaza City and in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, youths in Islamic Jihad scarves and T-shirts handed out sweets to motorists in celebration.

Also yesterday, Abbas held talks with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in the Red Sea City of Jeddah, focusing on Mideast peace and the Palestinians’ political crisis, the official SPA news agency reported.

“The two leaders discussed the need to remove internal differences amongst the Palestinians and the international efforts to enact the peace process in the region,” SPA said.

The Palestinian ambassador in Riyadh, Jamal Shobaki, told AFP on Sunday that Abbas was expected to tell Abdullah that he still backs a Saudi-sponsored power-sharing deal with Hamas provided the Islamist movement cedes control of the Gaza Strip.

The Mecca agreement reached under Saudi auspices last February between Abbas’ Fateh and Hamas led to a short-lived unity government of the rival factions.

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