GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli helicopters pounded targets in Gaza on Friday after a deadly Palestinian rocket attack that sparked fierce internal fighting between militants and Palestinian police trying to stop further barrages.
The Israeli air raids, the most intensive since a ceasefire was declared five months ago, caused no casualties, but two Palestinian bystanders were killed in the heaviest gunbattles in years between Palestinian security forces and armed factions.
The internal conflict, which raised Palestinian fears of civil war, erupted on Thursday after militants launched rockets into Israel, killing a 22-year-old woman. Palestinian police then confronted them in an effort to prevent further firings.
The Palestinian Authority declared a state of emergency in Gaza, and President Mahmoud Abbas, struggling to salvage a truce with Israel, ordered security forces to silence the rockets as Israeli officials threatened harsh retaliation for the attacks.
The surge of violence also threatened Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon”s plan to withdraw all Jewish settlers from occupied Gaza next month, a move international mediators see as a possible springboard to renewed peace talks.
Hamas and other militant groups want to give the impression they are chasing the Israelis out. Israel has vowed to crush any effort to disrupt the evacuation of Gaza”s 8,500 settlers, who live cloistered from more than 1.3 million Palestinians.
Militants said Thursday”s deadly rocket attack avenged the killing of a militant leader in an Israeli army raid into the West Bank city of Nablus, part of an offensive after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed five Israelis on Tuesday.
Early on Friday, a helicopter missile destroyed a pro-Hamas charity in Gaza, witnesses said. Another struck a weapons depot in Khan Younis, the Israeli army said. Two others hit a metal foundry and a storage room in a home in Gaza, witnesses said.
The army said it was "determined to continue operating against any terror organisation and those who assist them."
It said Gaza would be "cut into three parts", effectively blocking main roads to Palestinian travel.
Elsewhere, Hamas militants fought Palestinian police who raided rocket launching sites to stop further attacks. Militants fired machine guns, hurled grenades and torched four police vehicles.
Fighting raged early on Friday in Gaza”s Zeitoun district, a Hamas stronghold, pitting Palestinian security forces in armoured vehicles against militants firing anti-tank weapons.
Hospital sources said the two dead were unarmed teenagers.
Before the gunbattles subsided, more than a dozen people were wounded, six of them members of security forces and the rest civilians, some of whom were caught in the crossfire.
Families of the casualties were outraged. Armed relatives fired shots inside Shifa hospital before police restored order.
The fighting was the worst among Palestinians since the mid-1990s when police killed more than a dozen protesters in clashes with stone-throwers outside a Hamas-stronghold mosque.
Abbas, who had been in Gaza trying to persuade militants to stick to their pledge of calm, had been reluctant until now to confront armed groups despite demands from Israel and the United States. He coaxed militants into a ceasefire in February.
Israel voiced impatience after the latest rocket fire.
"Until they take real steps to dismantle terrorist infrastructure … we will feel free to take whatever action is necessary to stop these attacks," Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin said.