Israel vows total war on Gaza militants

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Israel vows total war on Gaza militants

By Eric Silver in Jerusalem

17 January 2005

Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, yesterday ordered the armed forces to wage an unremitting war on Palestinian gunmen who killed six civilians working at a cargo crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip last week. Israeli tank fire later killed a Palestinian man and his mother in the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip. Medics said a third person was seriously wounded.

Mahmoud Abbas, who was sworn in as the new Palestinian President on Saturday, is stepping up efforts to achieve a ceasefire and salvage his already battered hopes of negotiating a two-state solution with Israel. He is expected to go to Gaza today or tomorrow for urgent talks with militant groups.

He still prefers to co-opt rather than confront them in what could quickly degenerate into civil war. Until the weekend violence, Mr Sharon was ready to give him a chance. But as one Israeli commentator put it yesterday, the honeymoon is over.

Nabil Amr, a former minister who is close to Mr Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, said: "He will accelerate the negotiations and try to reach an understanding with the organisations. He needs an agreement within one week."

The executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation yesterday demanded a halt to "all military acts that harm our national interests and provide excuses for Israel, which wishes to obstruct Palestinian stability". Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said: "The resistance will continue as long as the Israeli aggression on our people continues. But if all forms of aggression have ceased, the Palestinian people will consider its options, including the option of a ceasefire."

Mr Sharon told his cabinet: "Regrettably, despite the change in the Palestinian leadership, those at the top have not begun any action whatsoever to halt terrorism. This situation cannot continue." The army, he added, would "continue to fight terrorism without restrictions, as long as the Palestinians are not lifting a finger".

Israeli troops killed eight Palestinians, most of them armed, in a firefight in Gaza on Saturday.Ra'anan Gissin, Mr Sharon's spokesman, said: "There won't be any limitations on the extent or the intensity of operations, until such time as they will come and beg Abu Mazen for a ceasefire."

After the border attack, Mr Sharon closed all crossings to Gaza and broke contact with Mr Abbas. Israel accused Palestinian security guards of allowing the bombers in a lorry to reach the gate. Salim Abu Safiya, who supervises the Palestinian side, warned that closing Karni to agricultural exports and raw material imports spelt economic catastrophe. "The entire public feels this blow, which means the destruction of agriculture, of construction and of industry and unemployment for 40,000 workers."

Mr Gissin said: "We don't intend to starve them, but the message must sink in that you can't massacre the people who work there and expect the crossings to remain open."

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