GAZA (Reuters) - Israeli tanks and troops seized a chunk of the northern Gaza Strip (news - web sites) on Friday, effectively carving out a security zone in what the army called an open-ended campaign to thwart Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel.
In a fresh flareup of violence, soldiers killed three Palestinian gunmen who fired on a convoy of Jewish settlers in the central Gaza Strip, the army said. The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack.
The creation of what Israeli Army Radio dubbed a security zone came on the heels of a raid on a Gaza refugee camp on Thursday in which 11 Palestinians were killed, bloodshed that followed a suicide bombing that killed 15 people in Israel.
Recent Israeli operations in Gaza have drawn international criticism over civilian casualties and fueled Palestinian fears that Israel's new rightist government will reoccupy all of the Strip while the world's attention is on Iraq.
Amid the violence, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat asked Mahmoud Abbas -- who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Mazen and has kept a back-channel open to Israeli leaders during the past 29 months of fighting -- to be prime minister, a post international peace mediators want created. Early on Friday, at least a dozen Israeli tanks and other armored vehicles backed by helicopter gunships pushed one mile deeper into the fenced-in Strip from the northern Erez border crossing, Palestinian security sources said.
The force rolled to the edge of Jabalya refugee camp, where Thursday's fighting took place, and the town of Beit Hanoun, establishing an armored triangle of observation posts and roadblocks that put some 10,000 Palestinians under Israeli guns.
"We will remain for as long as is necessary... and if we decide to hold on to this territory for a long time, we will," Colonel Yoel Strick, commander of Israel's northern Gaza brigade, told Army Radio.
Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the move. "The incursions cannot continue if we want to give the prime minister the chance to succeed," he said.
While Israeli forces have reoccupied much of the West Bank following suicide bombings last summer, raids into Gaza have never lasted more than a few days since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising for independence in September 2000.
The army said in a statement the new Gaza deployment "was part of an attempt to... prevent the launching of Qassam rockets toward Israeli communities near the northern Gaza Strip."
Three of the rudimentary rockets slammed into the southern Israeli town of Sderot on Thursday, causing no casualties, hours after the crushing raid on Jabalya, a militant stronghold.
Israel handed over most of the Gaza Strip to Palestinian self-rule under interim peace deals in the 1990s, but Jewish settlements established after the area was occupied in the 1967 Middle East war remained in place.
Israel occupied a "security zone" in south Lebanon for 22 years until it withdrew in 2000, after constant attacks by Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas.
Gaza has been a key flashpoint during the uprising, in which at least 1,909 Palestinians and 720 Israelis have been killed.
As troops dug in near Jabalya, they fired at stone throwers at the edge of the camp, wounding 14 people, witnesses said. Israeli military sources said members of the crowd also threw petrol bombs and soldiers shot only at them.
On the political front, Abbas, a relative moderate and the PLO's second-in-command, said he was willing to become the first Palestinian prime minister only if the post carried real authority.
Arafat has been under intense pressure from the United States and the European Union to reform the Palestinian Authority and appoint a powerful prime minister to take over day-to-day running of his government.
The process of establishing the post of prime minister was to begin on Saturday at a meeting of the PLO's Central Council in the West Bank city of Ramallah, to be followed by the convening on Monday of the Palestinian parliament.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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