Israel debates air attacks on arms factories in residential area

Thursday, May 13, 2004

TEL AVIV Israel's military is reviewing the feasibility of ground operations in the Gaza Strip in wake of the killing of six soldiers. The option of a return to air strikes targeting weapons factories is under consideration.

Military sources said the General Staff and Southern Command would review Tuesday's ground force operation in Gaza City in an effort to determine the feasibility of such missions. The sources said the review would also examine whether ground force operations into Gaza City represent an unacceptable risk to Israeli forces.

Six Israeli soldiers from an engineering unit were killed when their U.S.-origin M113 armored personnel carrier was destroyed by a mine in Gaza City, Middle East Newsline reported. The mine, claimed to have been placed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, set off a blast of 100 kilograms of explosives stored in the APC and intended for the destruction of Palestinian weapons facilities.

"The APC was carrying explosives intended to be used to destroy the workshops," an Israeli military statement said.

Officials said Southern Command decided on a ground force operation in Gaza City to reduce the prospect of collateral damage. The operation was meant to destroy Palestinian missile and mortar production facilities in the Gaza Strip neighborhood of Zeitoun, a Hamas and Islamic Jihad stronghold.

"The reality of fighting in the Gaza Strip is very difficult," Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, chief of Southern Command, said. "We are committed to reaching the terrorists and their weapons facilities while we are prevented from harming the civilian population. Because the lathes are in residential areas, we don't strike them from the air. We do this mostly for moral reasons."

One option for the military, officials said, was to return to air strikes against suspected insurgency targets in Gaza City and other Palestinian urban areas. The military has employed the AH-64A Apache attack helicopter for attacks on insurgency hideouts and leaders.

Interior Minister Avraham Poraz called on the military to bomb Palestinian insurgency targets from the air rather than employing ground troops. Poraz said an air strike should be preceded by Israeli aircraft dropping leaflets that urge people in the targeted area to leave their homes.

Military sources said the M113, capable of transporting 11 soldiers in combat gear, was not suitable to carry a large amount of explosives. They said the APC was deemed as highly-vulnerable to mines and roadside bombs. The military was said to have known that insurgents had planted mines at the entrance to Zeitoun.

Hours after the APC was destroyed, an Israeli attack helicopter fired a missile toward a car that approached the Israeli community of Netsarim, south of Gaza City. One passenger was killed and the others were injured, but their identities were not disclosed.

Israeli helicopters also fired missiles toward Hamas insurgents in Zeitoun on Wednesday. At least three Palestinians were said to have been killed in two separate Israeli air attacks. On Tuesday, seven Palestinians were killed in the fighting and Palestinian sources said that at one point they identified 60 Israeli-origin Merkava Mk-3 main battle tanks deployed in the area.

In all, the military was said to have destroyed four weapons laboratories and one lathe -- all of which were said to have been employed in the production of Kassam-class short-range missiles and mortars. Military sources said additional facilities were believed to be located in Gaza City.

Israeli military sources said a large Israeli force would remain in Zeitoun to search for the body parts of the Israeli soldiers, believed held by Hamas and Jihad insurgents. The sources said elements of three infantry brigades were in Zeitoun in a house-to-house search as Palestinian insurgents fired anti-tank weapons and detonated mines.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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