JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israel has given a green light for intensified airstrikes inside the Gaza Strip to enforce a buffer zone meant to stop Palestinian militants from firing rockets, officials said on Friday.
But in a sign of growing friction over the cross-border violence, Palestinian security forces said they had refused an Israeli request to evacuate the area.
The makeshift rockets rarely cause casualties, but could have big political fallout as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon campaigns for re-election on the strength of a pullout from Gaza this year that he said would boost Israel”s security.
Despite the withdrawal, the rocket firing has not stopped, and Israel has mounted air and artillery strikes at Gaza.
Militants say the rockets are to avenge Israeli raids in the occupied
West Bank as well as its strikes into the Gaza Strip.
On Thursday, four Israeli soldiers were wounded when a rocket hit their base after Israeli troops killed three militants in the West Bank. One rocket fell on Friday.
Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz”s office said that, after discussion on Thursday, "he has ordered a restriction of movement in those areas from which the Palestinian terrorist organisations fire rockets into Israel".
Another security source made clear that this meant use of air power, not ground operations.
PALESTINIANS STAY PUT
But Palestinian forces said they had refused an Israeli request to evacuate the border zone and were continuing their own efforts to prevent rocket firing from amid the rubble of former Jewish settlements at the border.
"We will not move one inch," said Assayed Shaban, commander of forces in northern Gaza. "We are also making a 100 percent effort to prevent rocket firing."
The cross-border violence has quickly soured any hopes that the Gaza pullout could lead to a quick return to peacemaking.
Israel rules out any talks on statehood in the West Bank and Gaza until the Palestinian authorities disarm militants, a process that is meant to start under a U.S.-backed peace plan.
Israeli security sources said further steps were being considered if the rocket fire did not stop. These include cutting off Gaza”s electricity — a proposal denounced by human rights groups as collective punishment.
A ground offensive to re-occupy parts of Gaza is unlikely unless rockets cause heavy casualties, the sources said.
The stakes are particularly high for Sharon ahead of the election on March 28, for which the ex-general quit his rightist Likud to move towards the political centre.
Opinion polls suggest Sharon”s Kadima party has a big lead.
But more attacks, particularly from Gaza, could strengthen the hand of his main challenger from the right, Likud”s Benjamin Netanyahu, who denounced the Gaza pullout as a surrender to Palestinian militants that would only encourage attacks.
A dramatic surge in violence could also create problems for a Palestinian parliamentary election on Jan. 25, and potentially force a delay.
Militants said they would keep up the barrages whatever Israel did. "We will not tremble from these threats," said Abu Abir of the Popular Resistance Committees.