Israeli airforce pounds Gaza radicals as "legitimate targets"
GAZA CITY (AFP) - The Israeli airforce continued to strike the Gaza Strip shortly after officials warned that anyone involved in firing rockets at Israeli targets was a "legitimate target" following a day of spiralling violence in the territory.
Two militants from the radical Hamas movement were killed Saturday in one of numerous Israeli airstrikes in what was the worst spike of unrest since Israel completed its historic pullout from the territory on September 12.
"Anyone who tries to
fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel will be a legitimate target for us," a senior Israeli official told AFP late Saturday following an emergency security cabinet meeting to discuss a barrage of militant rocket attacks.
Shortly afterwards, Israeli warplanes raided militant targets in and around the southern city of Khan Yunis and around Gaza City, leaving at least 20 Palestinians injured, one of them seriously.
Medical sources said all the injuries occurred during the Gaza City raid in which eight women and three children were wounded. A school building sustained heavy damage, as did several nearby houses, security sources said.
The Israeli army confirmed it had hit a Hamas-run school which had been used "as a channel to pass on money to terrorists and their families".
The airforce also hit a building in Khan Yunis and a second structure in the nearby town of Bani Suheila which the army said was used by the radical Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades for manufacturing weapons. No one was injured.
In the last 24 hours, Israeli warplanes have mounted at least 10 airstrikes in Gaza targeting militant positions and weapons-making outlets after radical groups fired a barrage of more than 40 Qassam rockets into Israel, injuring five people.
Despite the escalating violence, the Israeli security cabinet held back from ordering a ground offensive into the territory it withdrew from early last week following a 38-year occupation.
And the official refused to confirm that Israel was re-instituting its policy of targeted killings, despite the assassination of two Hamas militants on Saturday. The policy was officially suspended in February following a landmark peace summit, although it has not been rigorously applied.
Earlier on Saturday, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered a series of "harsh and varied operations" against militant infrastructure during an emergency session of his top lieutenants in which he warned that Israel's answer would be "firm and unequivocal".
The international community expressed alarm over the flareup in Gaza, with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan saying it threatened to undermine the progress achieved through Israel's recent pullout from the territory.
"The secretary general is alarmed by the escalation of violence between Israel and armed Palestinian factions in the past two days, which risks stymieing efforts to seize the momentum generated by Israel's withdrawal," Annan's spokesman said in a statement.
"He urges all Palestinian factions to heed President Mahmud Abbas's call on them to cease the public display of weapons, as a step towards abandoning weapons altogether and joining the construction of a democratic Palestinian society."
The violence also threatened to mar a forthcoming summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Abbas on October 2, which is also likely to be attended by Jordan's King Abdullah II.
The meeting will be the first time the two leaders have met since Israel's pullout from Gaza, which won huge praise from the international community as a step to help revive the troubled peace process following five years of unrelenting bloodshed that has claimed nearly 5,000 lives.
At a peace rally in the West Bank town of Ramallah late Saturday, Abbas made no direct reference to the Israeli raids, but rather called for an end to the internal armed chaos and military rallies in the Palestinian territories.
"This continuous agony must stop, the agony of the weapons chaos, of the rallies, all at the expense of law and order in residential areas," he said.
Abbas is under huge international pressure to assert control over chaos in Gaza and prove the Palestinians are capable of managing their promised, future state.
The Gaza unrest took a turn for the worse late Friday after 15 people were killed when a jeep exploded at a Hamas rally in the northern Gaza Strip, which the group promptly blamed on Israel.
But the accusation was flatly denied by the Israeli army, as well as by the Palestinian Authority and the mainstream Fatah movement who both said the blast appeared to have been caused by Hamas explosives carried inside the vehicle.
Israel on Saturday imposed a complete lockdown on the Palestinian territories and deployed an artillery unit along Gaza's northern border.
The Palestinian Authority also said it had closed the Rafah border crossing between southern Gaza and Egypt following an Israeli request.
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