GAZA, (Reuters) – Israeli warplanes struck the Gaza Strip early on Tuesday after threatening to enforce a buffer zone to stop Palestinian militants firing rockets from the territory that Israel evacuated three months ago.
Helicopter gunships and fighter jets attacked least nine targets, cutting off electricity to a town in northern Gaza and blowing deep craters in half a dozen roads.
The Israeli army said it targeted two offices of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed group from President Mahmoud Abbas”s Fatah faction, and a bridge to an area used to fire rockets at Israel. There were no casualties.
The attacks came after Israeli leaders vowed to enforce a no-go zone in the north of the strip, though the army said Tuesday”s air strikes were a response to specific Palestinian rocket fire rather than aimed at enforcing the buffer zone.
The rockets rarely cause casualties, but could harm Prime Minister Ariel Sharon”s campaign for re-election in March on the strength of a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip he had said would boost Israel”s security.
Sharon has given the go-ahead for Israel to impose a no-go zone in northern Gaza, often used by militants for firing rockets. Anyone entering risks being killed in air strikes or shelling from land or sea. Palestinians are furious.
"Carving out a so-called buffer zone is tantamount to reoccupying Gaza," said top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "We are exerting maximum efforts to restore calm."
PALESTINIANS STAY PUT
Israel urged Palestinian police to evacuate positions in the area last week, but they refused, saying they were continuing their own efforts to stop rocket fire.
Israel”s threat to enforce the zone has recalled the "Security Zone" it established in southern Lebanon to prevent rocket fire by guerrillas.
But Israel says it will not use troops to reoccupy parts of the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces ended their occupation of south Lebanon in 2000 after years of attacks.
Palestinian gunmen call the rocket salvoes a response to Israeli strikes and the violence has soured hopes the Gaza pullout would lead to a quick resumption of peacemaking.
Militants say they will only step up the barrages if Israel attempts to enforce a no-go zone. One faction said it fired two rockets into Israel on Tuesday morning.
But some Palestinians complained that the rockets did little harm to Israel, while the raids in response destroyed roads and brought sleepless nights.
"I think the majority of the people here are against them (the rockets)," said construction worker Abu Salim.
Sharon has ruled out any talks on statehood in the West Bank and Gaza until Palestinians disarm militants, a process that is meant to start under a U.S.-backed peace plan.
The stakes are high for Sharon ahead of the March 28 election, for which the ex-general is standing on a platform of ending conflict with the Palestinians after quitting his rightist Likud to move towards the political centre.
A big surge of violence could also complicate Palestinian elections due next month and even force a delay. That might suit President Mahmoud Abbas”s divided Fatah movement, but Israel does not want to be blamed for any postponement.