During his trip to the United States, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that a Palestinian rocket attack on Israeli communities would be met with a harsh response “unlike anything else” Israel ever meted out before.
On Sunday, shortly before Sharon returned from a three-day visit to the United States, such a rocket attack occurred — as did a deadly Palestinian shooting attack in Beersheba, which until now had remained on the periphery of the intifada.
The Israeli retaliation, however, was little different from earlier ones: Israeli jets fired missiles at Palestinian security targets in Gaza City.
The prime minister was expected to discuss a further response with his Inner Cabinet, which includes Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
Just the same, as Israeli commentators noted, diplomatic constraints may prevent Sharon from ordering a broader military response.
Sharon told reporters on his return to Israel that the United States understands that Israel “has its own policies.”
But the commentators observed that while Sharon and his American hosts may have agreed in their discussions to keep the pressure on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, the United States is primarily concerned that there be no escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it could interfere with the U.S. campaign against terror.
Prior to his visit to Washington, Sharon said he would call on President Bush to cut off ties with Arafat. But before he met with Bush on Feb. 7 at the White House, U.S. officials made it clear that they would press Arafat to clamp down on terrorism — but would not sever ties with him.
During the meeting with Bush, Sharon did not ask for a severing of ties with Arafat. Instead, he asked that the United States begin cultivating a relationship with other top Palestinian officials.
On Sunday, Palestinians fired a rocket into Israel from the Gaza Strip.
Israeli army officials said the Kassam rocket, built by Hamas, was a type not previously used in the more than 16 months of violence.
The rocket exploded between two tractors in a kibbutz and caused no injuries, but Israeli officials said they regarded the Palestinians’ use of the weapon as a serious escalation.
Last week, Israeli troops in the West Bank intercepted a Jenin-bound truck carrying Kassam rockets and launchers. Israeli security sources believe the Palestinians intended to fire them toward Afula.
The officials also believe Hamas has already smuggled rockets into Ramallah, with plans to threaten Jerusalem, the Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported.
Hamas claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack in Beersheba.
Two female Israeli soldiers were killed and at least five other people were seriously wounded in the attack.
The two soldiers were identified as 1st Lt. Keren Rothstein, 20, from Ashkelon, and Cpl. Aya Malachi, 18, from Moshav Ein Habsor.
The attack, which occurred around lunchtime, occurred when two gunmen in a car opened fire at a cafe located a block from the army’s southern command headquarters. The cafe was frequented by soldiers who serve at the base.
Many soldiers were on the streets during their lunch break, and they quickly began firing back at the attackers, who were shot and killed within minutes, witnesses said.
One of the gunmen wore an explosives belt, but he was killed before he had a chance to detonate the bomb.
“I was on the street and suddenly the two got out of a car and started firing in all directions,” Capt. Guy Shaham told Israel Radio. “I whipped out my gun and started firing back at them.”
As rescue teams treated the wounded police launched searches amid reports, which later proved false, that a third terrorist dressed as an Israeli soldier had fled the scene.
Sunday’s attack in Beersheba followed other deadly assaults on Israelis over the weekend.
On Saturday, 79-year-old Atala Lipovsky was killed when Palestinians fired on her car in the West Bank.
Last Friday, Israeli law student Moran Amit, 25, was stabbed to death by a group of Arab teen-agers who jumped her and a friend as they walked near a popular promenade overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City.
The four assailants were apprehended following a police pursuit in which the police opened fire.
One of the teens died during his arrest, and police initially said the cause was heart failure. But doctors performing an autopsy found a bullet.
As the Israeli death toll mounted, Israel’s police commissioner released terror total from last year.
Shlomo Aharonishky said terror attacks were up 337 percent in 2001 compared with the previous year.
A total of 208 people were killed in attacks last year and another 1,523 wounded, he said, adding that 2001 was Israel’s worst year of terror since the establishment of the state in 1948.
There were 90 attacks in Jerusalem last year, including 35 bombings, 28 shooting attacks, 10 stabbings and six mortar attacks, he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.