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ARABS-ISRAEL - May 18 - Air Strike And Mortars Rattle Shaky Gaza Truce.

In Israel's first air strike since a truce was announced three months ago, the air force fires on a Palestinian cell launching mortars at Jewish settlements in the southern Gaza Strip. The air strike came during one of two separate shooting exchanges in southern Gaza that left one Palestinian militant dead and several wounded, while one Israeli civilian was lightly hurt, the two sides said. The events reflected the fragile nature of a truce that has greatly reduced the overall level of violence since February, but which has not silenced the guns. "The Palestinian Authority is continually refusing to take the necessary steps to prevent terror against Israel", said David Baker, an official in the office of Israel's PM, Ariel Sharon. "If this continues, Israel will be compelled to take whatever steps it deems necessary to protect its citizens". Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman in Gaza for the Islamic faction Hamas, responded by saying: What is happening is a dangerous Israeli escalation. I think the Palestinian people will not stay silent". Israel, which plans to evacuate nearly 9,000 settlers from Gaza beginning in August, is concerned that an increase in violence will greatly complicate the pullout. Hamas, which was involved in both of the shootings, has generally been observing the truce. But on May 18, the trouble began before dawn when Palestinians fired anti-tank rockets and automatic rifles at Israelis soldiers along Gaza's border with Egypt, prompting return fire from the soldiers, the Israeli military said. A Hamas militant was killed by an Israeli explosive device, according to Palestinians in the border town of Rafah. But the Israeli military said soldiers fired only bullets, not explosives, and believed the Hamas man was killed by an explosive he was carrying that went off prematurely. In the afternoon, Hamas began firing mortars at Gush Katif, the largest Jewish settlement bloc in Gaza. An Israeli aircraft spotted a group preparing to fire, and unleashed a missile that wounded several militants, including one critically, according to the military and Palestinians. Israel did not say what type of aircraft was used, but helicopters and unmanned drones have both been employed in similar strikes in the past. Despite the air strike, the mortar fire continued, lightly wounding one Israeli and damaging a greenhouse, the military said, adding that Palestinians fired more than a dozen mortars and two rockets. Palestinians have launched thousands of mortars at the Gaza settlements in recent years. The attacks largely stopped when the truce was announced in February, though the armed factions have unleashed brief periods of mortar fire following the deaths of Palestinians. For the past three months, Israel's military has largely ignored the mortar attacks, a move that has drawn criticism from the Jewish settlers who are targeted. In the more than three months since the truce was announced, 6 Israelis and 20 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. In more than four years fighting before the truce, Israelis were being killed at a rate of nearly 20 a month, while more than 60 Palestinians were being killed each month on average. Sharon's government is stepping up efforts to persuade the Gaza settlers to leave voluntarily. While the vast majority oppose the evacuation, there are signs that some are starting to make plans for leaving. At a government meeting May 18 on the evacuation, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said more than 400 families have signed up for a proposal that would move them as a group to Nitzanim, a coastal area north of Gaza. However, settler leaders have disputed the figure, saying it is far smaller. Livni said: Time is very short and the settlers must understand that if they don't give us a green light very soon, we will be unable to put these solutions at their disposal". Meanwhile, the Palestinian Parliament approved a new election law that should pave the way for balloting to be held as scheduled on July 17. The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who is traveling in Asia, must still approve the measure, but he has said he wants the elections held as planned. Also, a Palestinian court ordered another round of voting in parts of Rafah, citing irregularities in municipal elections on May 5. Hamas won 12 of the 15 town council seats in Rafah and made a strong showing in the local elections throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Geographic Code:7PALE
Date:May 21, 2005
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