JERUSALEM (Feb. 17)
Israel broadened its military operations in the Gaza Strip this week in response to a Hamas attack that killed four Israeli soldiers.
The four Israeli members of a tank crew were killed Saturday when a large mine weighing more than 200 pounds exploded beneath their tank in northern Gaza.
The four Israelis were identified as Cpl. Noam Bahagon, 20, of Elkana; Sgt. Tal Alexei Belitzky, 21, of Rishon le- Zion; Staff Sgt. Doron Cohen, 21, of Rishon le-Zion; and Sgt. Itay Mizrahi, 20, of Beersheba.
This was the fourth such fatal attack against a tank during the past year.
Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was to avenge the recent killing of two of its members in Gaza by Israeli troops.
An initial inquiry into the attack found that the bomb had apparently been placed inside a water heater container and planted up to a month before.
Israeli army officials believe the tank set off the mine when it deviated from the path being cleared by a bulldozer that was traveling ahead the tank.
The attack touched off a series of Israeli military actions against Hamas targets.
On Monday, Israeli troops shot a Hamas leader, Riad Abu Zeid, in an operation near a Gaza refugee camp. He later died of his injuries in an Israeli hospital.
Abu Zeid was believed to have taken over from Mohammad Deif, who was seriously wounded in an Israeli military missile raid in the Gaza Strip several months ago.
Earlier Monday, two Palestinians were killed and four others wounded in exchanges of fire that erupted during an Israeli military incursion into Gaza City.
During the incursion, Israeli tanks demolished the house of a Hamas terrorist, Ahmed Randur, believed to have been responsible for Saturday’s attack on the Israeli tank. Randur was not home and remained at large.
Following Saturday’s attack, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz vowed that Israel would strike a heavy blow against Hamas’ infrastructure in Gaza.
In another development, six Hamas members were killed Sunday in an explosion in Gaza City.
Hamas blamed Israel, but Israeli sources said the blast may well have been a “work accident” caused when a bomb the Hamas members were making went off prematurely.
Amid the escalating violence, Israeli security officials have noted efforts by the Palestinian Authority to prevent Hamas rocket attacks at Israeli targets from northern Gaza.
On Monday, Palestinian Authority security officials discovered several rocket launchers in Gaza. Israel later authorized the Palestinians to destroy the launchers.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials have expressed doubt over Yasser Arafat’s announcement that he would appoint a prime minister to oversee day-to-day operations of the Palestinian Authority.
Mofaz told the Cabinet on Sunday that Arafat’s declaration last Friday was apparently fueled by a desire to improve world opinion of him.
On Monday, Arafat deputy Mahmoud Abbas said he would “seriously” consider becoming prime minister if the post were offered him.
In another development Monday, Israel’s 16th Knesset was sworn in.
Legislators are slated to hold a secret ballot later this week to choose a new speaker.
The Knesset is scheduled to conclude in November 2007, but could it end sooner if early elections are called before then.
At Monday’s swearing-in, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres called on the Palestinians to work with Israel to put an end to the terror and bloodshed.
Peres, who chaired Monday’s session, said Israel must continue to fight terrorism, but with a hand extended in peace.
“We must listen to those Palestinian leaders who are calling for an end to the intifada,” he said.
Despite the general inactivity on the diplomatic front, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly met recently with the Palestinian Authority official for finance, Salam Fayed, at Sharon’s official residence in Jerusalem, Israel Radio reported.
During the meeting, which was also attended by Sharon aide Dov Weisglass, Sharon and Fayed exchanged views on the possibility of advancing diplomatic talks.
This was Sharon’s second recent meeting with a Palestinian official.
Two weeks ago, he met with the speaker of the Palestinian legislative council, Ahmed Karia, and proposed a gradual cease-fire in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In another development, an Israeli delegation traveled to London on Monday for talks on Palestinian financial reform. The delegation is taking part in a conference of donor nations to the Palestinian Authority, as well as the discussions of a task force dealing with Palestinian reform.
Over the weekend, Israel agreed to let a Palestinian Authority delegation head to London, after refusing to do a month ago.
Israel said it would not engage in any political contacts with the Palestinians during the discussions.