JERUSALEM, April 11 (JTA) – Days after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he had a plan to restore Israeli security, the Israel Defense Force has taken its most aggressive step yet to deal with ongoing Palestinian violence.
Late Tuesday night, Israeli forces entered a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip from which Palestinian gunmen regularly fired guns and mortars on nearby Jewish settlements.
Israeli tanks and bulldozers destroyed at least 11 buildings that Palestinians used as firing posts. In the battle late Tuesday night with gunmen at the Khan Yunis refugee camp, Israel’s army reportedly killed two Palestinians and wounded 25 others.
An Israeli official said it was the largest IDF force to enter Palestinian-controlled territory since the outbreak of fighting last September.
The IDF said the operation, codenamed “Enjoyable Song,” was part of a “continuous operation” aimed at striking Palestinian “sources responsible for terror.”
Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel has no interest in retaking Palestinian territory.
The IDF was ordered to “go in and destroy the same posts from which our communities were shelled,” he said Wednesday. “These are points we don’t want the Palestinians to return to. This is a clear act of defense.”
Settler leaders, who have been urging Sharon to respond more forcefully to recent Palestinian attacks on Jewish settlements, welcomed the latest move.
Palestinian spokesmen condemned the action, but preparations nonetheless were still proceeding for a meeting Wednesday night of high-level defense and security officials from the two sides. The meeting was slated to be held at the home of the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk.
Also Wednesday, former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, a leading Labor Party dove, met in the West Bank city of Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
Beilin said later that Arafat is willing to resume negotiations unconditionally.
Sharon repeatedly has said he will not negotiate before Palestinian violence ceases.
The action in Khan Yunis followed nightly mortar bombings by Palestinians of Israeli communities inside and outside Gaza, and of IDF positions in the area.
It also came hours after Israel fired missiles at Palestinian Authority security targets in Gaza. Israeli officials said Tuesday’s strikes came in retaliation for Palestinian mortar attacks on Jewish settlements in Gaza.
The Palestinians have only recently begun to use mortars in the conflict, but in recent days they have fired more than 50 mortars at Israeli targets, according to Israeli sources, who say the accuracy of these shellings is steadily improving.
The Israeli action began after midnight, and the force withdrew at 4.30 a.m.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Arafat, told Voice of Palestine Radio on Wednesday that Sharon bore responsibility for an escalation that could engulf the whole region in war.