Israeli-Palestinian skirmishes take to the air

Israel enacted a 'no-go' zone to prevent Palestinian militants in northern Gaza from firing rockets.

More than three months after the last Israeli soldiers left the Gaza Strip and sealed the fence behind them, the daily violence that many hoped would end there has returned as the two sides have taken their battle to the air.

Over the past weeks, Palestinian militants in former Jewish settlements have launched rockets from northern Gaza with increasing frequency into southern Israel, hitting Sderot and Ashkelon.

As a result, Israel moved Wednesday to begin enforcing a "no-go zone," an approximately two-by-six-mile area that was home to three Jewish settlements before Israel withdrew from Gaza earlier this year. Anyone who enters the area runs the risk of being fired on.

"[Militants] are firing freely every night, so we are drawing a red line," Israel spokesman Raanan Gissin said. "Anyone who crosses into that area once the program is implemented is fair game."

In preparation for enforcing the no-go zone, the Israeli Air Force began dropping leaflets in Gaza Tuesday night, warning residents to stay out of the area.

Palestinian militants hit Sderot with regularity before Israel's pullout from Gaza. But it wasn't until the withdrawal that they could get close enough to strike Ashkelon. Militant groups have also claimed they boosted the range of their projectiles.

Initially, the Israeli response was targeted killings of militants from the two groups believed to be responsible for the attacks - Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. However, the army recently changed tactics to fire artillery into Gaza, while Air Force helicopters shot missiles at roads, bridges, and buildings used by the groups.

Seeking to calm the situation, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Gaza Tuesday to urge the militants to cease their rocket sorties.

"We demand everyone be committed to the truce," says Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator who often acts as a Palestinian Authority (PA) spokesman. "We consider the truce a matter of high national interest."

Mr. Abbas was rebuffed, however, by at least Islamic Jihad, the group responsible for the majority of the strikes. "I think the continuation of resistance is what's better for the Palestinian people," the Associated Press reported Islamic Jihad Spokesman Khaled Batch saying in Gaza.

How effective the no-go zone will prove in halting the attacks remains to be seen. Calling the no-go zone "a stop-gap measure," Michael Orin, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, an academic research institute here, says preventing rocket attacks is nearly impossible.

"We know from our experience in Lebanon that it's very difficult to sanitize an entire area of activity," Mr. Orin says. "It's probably important for [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon politically because he doesn't want to go into Gaza before" Israeli elections in March.

According to Orin, Israel's response is limited because sentiment among the international community, as well as within Israel society, prevents its military from returning fire into densely populated areas. "Ultimately, the only surefire answer is if the Palestinians themselves decide to crack down on this, and right now you have a Palestinian leadership that is either unwilling or incapable of doing that," he says.

While acknowledging that it is the PA's responsibility to stop the rocket attacks, Erekat says that the no-go zone will only complicate matters and is "tantamount to reoccupying Gaza. It will just add to the violence and problems that we have."

Instead, Erekat says, Israel should help the PA rebuild the capacity of its security forces, providing them with equipment and ammunition so that they may police Gaza effectively. "We are trying our best but we are unable to stop [the militants]. If the Israelis could help, then we could solve the problem."

Meanwhile, a barrage of Katyusha rockets launched from Lebanon hit the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona Tuesday night, sending residents into bomb shelters. Israel responded by bombing a training base south of Beirut used by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command), a small group Israel says is backed by Syria.

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