GAZA,(Reuters) – Israel launched missile strikes that knocked out power to thousands of Palestinians in Gaza on Wednesday as it pressed an offensive to halt cross-border rocket fire two weeks after its withdrawal from the strip.
The air raids took place just hours after Israel”s army fired artillery shells into the Gaza Strip for the first time since the 1967 Middle East war, further aggravating tension on the fifth anniversary of a Palestinian uprising.
Renewed violence has battered hopes that Israel”s troop pullout from Gaza, completed on Sept. 12 under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon”s plan for "disengaging" from conflict with the Palestinians, would improve chances for peace.
Sharon, locked in a race with rival Benjamin Netanyahu for leadership of the right-wing Likud party, has hit back hard against militants firing rockets into Israel.
He wants to counter hardliners” accusations that he has hurt Israel”s security by pulling out of Gaza after 38 years of occupation. His tough response may have have given him a boost in polls showing him taking a commanding lead over Netanyahu.
Before dawn on Monday, Israeli aircraft fired missiles at four militant targets in and around Gaza City, destroying the offices of a leading Fatah militant and two other militant groups, Israeli military sources and Palestinian witnesses said.
They said a fifth missile fired later destroyed a bridge in northern Gaza”s Beit Hanoun.
No casualties were reported but the air strikes destroyed two major electrical generators, plunging Gaza City and much of the northern strip into darkness for hours.
The army said it had not deliberately targeted electricity infrastructure. After emergency repairs, at least 35,000 people remained without power after daybreak.
Late on Tuesday, Israeli artillery fired on what the army said were rocket launching sites in northern Gaza after a rocket landed in a street in a town in southern Israel.
A previous rocket barrage drew threats from Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz that militants "will be hit again and again until they understand there are new rules to the game".
However, Israeli officials have given no sign of any immediate intention to send ground forces back into the strip.
"We condemn the Israeli military escalation," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
Israeli troops also carried out raids overnight in the occupied West Bank, arresting 24 suspected militants.
That followed Tuesday”s release of a videotape by Hamas, a group bent on Israel”s destruction, claiming responsibility for kidnapping and killing an Israeli man in what appeared to signal a new tactic against the Jewish state.
Hamas said initially it had abducted Sasson Nuriel, 50, a candy merchant from Jerusalem, to use him as a bargaining chip to free prisoners from Israeli jails. Nuriel”s body was found near the West Bank town of Ramallah on Monday.
He was the first Israeli killed since Israel completed its withdrawal from Gaza.
It was Israel”s first removal of Jewish enclaves on land the Palestinians want for a state, but Sharon has vowed never to give up much large settlement blocs in the West Bank.
Sharon”s political fortunes appeared on the rise with two new polls showing him surging past Netanyahu in the Likud race.
The prime minister received a boost from the Likud central committee”s rejection on Monday of Netanyahu”s bid to bring forward a party leadership election to oust him in protest against Israel”s evacuation of settlers and soldiers from Gaza.
The ballot by the party”s rank-and-file is set for April before a general election that must be held by November 2006.
Netanyahu is trying to tap into the anger of many Likud members who see the Gaza pullout as a reward for Palestinain violence and a betrayal of Jewish claims on biblical land.
A poll of Likud members published on Wednesday in the newspaper Haaretz showed Sharon with 47.6 percent support to Netanyahu”s 33.8 percent, a reversal from three weeks ago when the premier trailed his opponent by six percentage points.