Middle East conflict takes to the air

Opening a new front, Israel has begun using F16s to attack sites in Gaza.

Israeli F-16s circled through the Gaza skies yesterday. But as of nightfall, they had not fired any rockets as they had three times in the previous two days.

"Only [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon knows if they will attack," says an officer outside the badly damaged headquarters of the Palestinian security forces on Gaza's main street.

The first Israeli airstrikes on Sunday took place hours after a the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, killed two women soldiers in southern Israel.

Israel says it opted for greater use of the planes in order to deter Palestinians from using a new rocket, the Kassam 2, which is believed to put Israeli areas in range of Palestinian fighters several kilometers away.

"We are sending them a clear message not to use the Kassam 2," said army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz.

With no diplomacy on the horizon, both sides see the nearly year-and-a-half-old conflict escalating. Israel has been turning more and more to its airforce, and increasingly uses the F-16s - provided by the United States to use only in cases of self defense - alongside the more accurate Apache helicopters that previously were the weapon of choice.

Palestinians say Israel's heightened use of the warplanes puts more of their civilians at risk. And Israel's leading military affairs commentator, Zeev Schiff, wrote yesterday that it is increasing the probability of a "mistake" in which a large number of civilians are killed. "This happened to the Americans frequently in Afghanistan and also to our best pilots in the past. He who magnifies use of the airforce must be ready for mistakes."

Several Kassam rockets fell harmlessly into an open area inside Israel when they were fired for the first time by members of Hamas on Sunday.

Palestinians say the Israeli concern about the primitive rocket is ridiculous. The Israeli rockets fired from warplanes and helicopters on Gaza, for example, have wounded more than 40 members of the security forces and civilians since Sunday.

The difference in terms of damage and potential fatalities from the use of airplanes rather than helicopters is clear from the wreckage of Monday's attacks, during which one section of the police compound was struck by Apache helicopter rockets and a second by those fired from F-16s. The Apache rockets were so precise that they sailed through the windows of the building they struck. The outer structure of the building, including its roof, was still standing, complete with an intact antenna. Embers were still smoldering inside, where the furnishings had been blown to pieces.

Wa'il Kandal, the gym teacher at the Mutassim B'allah school about 200 yards away from the site of the Israeli strikes, said the children were sent home after the Apache helicopters began their attacks but before the F-16s fired their rockets.

Sixth grader Shihab Obeid recalled how the school's 800 children at first assembled in the courtyard. "Only the first graders were afraid," he said.

"We were afraid the school itself would be a target," says Kandal. "The Israelis can hit the school and then say it was a mistake, as they have done before when they killed children. They will say that they were aiming at the police headquarters. A hundred of our children will die, and what will the world do? Bush will tell Sharon, 'say you are sorry,' and that will be the end of it."

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