Gaza attacks threaten to unravel a Mideast cease-fire

Palestinians fired mortars at Jewish settlements this week, in response to militant deaths.

Mortars and rockets fell on Israeli neighborhoods across the Gaza Strip for a second day, raising concern about a resurgence in violence that could end the relative calm that has prevailed since a Middle East peace summit three months ago.

The Palestinian salvos Thursday came in retaliation for an air strike on the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, killing Hamas activist Ahmed Shawan. Israel's military said it was targeting a team of militants firing the mortars.

Although both Israel and Hamas said they want to avoid a further escalation, the fighting raised concern about whether Israel would go ahead on schedule with its planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip later this summer if hostile fire continued.

"This is exactly the problem," said Yuval Steinitz, head of the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee in an interview with Israel Radio. "When you want to take thousands of people out of their houses, you have to ensure that when they are unprotected, no one will touch them."

Some Israelis still criticize the disorderly pullout from southern Lebanon security zone five years ago as an embarrassing retreat, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can ill afford a repeat performance when the controversial Gaza pullout goes ahead on Aug. 15.

The Lebanon pullout was completed in less than one day with no casualties, but the several-week project of evacuating some 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip would be many times more dangerous if the barrage of mortar and rocket attacks of the past two days continued.

Despite the violence, Mr. Steinitz met Thursday with Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, a meeting which he said took place in a positive atmosphere, Israel Radio reported. Steinitz called on the Israeli government to order a wide-scale offensive against militants in the Gaza Strip prior to the withdrawal in order to ensure the safety of settlers and soldiers involved in the evacuation.

Shmuel Bar, a Middle East expert at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Institute, suggests that Israel is likely to postpone the pullout in the face of repeated salvos from Palestinian militants.

"I find it almost impossible that the disengagement would take place under those circumstances," he says. "Protecting people under fire while taking them out from Gaza is difficult, at best."

An Israeli military spokesman said that since attacks began Wednesday morning, Palestinian militants fired some 40 mortars and three crudely made Kassem rockets at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, as well as at Israeli towns lying just beyond Gaza's eastern border.

The shelling of the last two days was triggered by the death of Hamas militant Ahmed Barhoum early Wednesday, who was killed near Israeli military posts along the heavily guarded border between Gaza and Egypt. Palestinians said Mr. Barhoum died from gunshots fired by Israeli soldiers, but Israel charged that he was killed by explosives that he was carrying en route to detonating them.

Israeli officials have suggested that the latest round of attacks is an effort by Hamas to press the Palestinian government after a court invalidated its victory in a local election in the Gaza border town of Rafah.

Hamas spokesman Sami Zahri said the organization is still interested in maintaining the three-month-old truce, but would respond to any Israeli attacks. A renewal of widespread violence could work against Hamas because it risks delaying Palestinian legislative elections set for July 17, a vote in which the Islamic militant movement is poised to gain its foothold in parliament.

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