updated 7/24/2005 6:51:29 PM ET 2005-07-24T22:51:29

Israel’s military will resort to unprecedented measures if Palestinian militants attack Israeli soldiers and settlers during next month’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned on Sunday.

Sharon’s comments came a day after two Israeli motorists were killed in a Gaza shooting ambush and soldiers caught a would-be suicide bomber near a communal farm just outside Gaza late Friday.

Groups that claimed responsibility for the shooting included Islamic Jihad, the local Popular Resistance Committees and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, linked to the ruling Fatah party. Militant groups are trying to show that Israel’s pullout from Gaza next month is a retreat under fire from Palestinian resistance, instead of a strategic Israeli decision.

Speaking to his Cabinet just hours after Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a convoy leading visitors out of Gaza Strip settlements, killing a Jerusalem couple, Sharon warned that if Palestinians attack settlers or security forces during the pullout, Israel’s response will be unprecedented.

Consults with Rice
Sharon said he told visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that “our reaction (to attacks) will be of a different kind, with the addition of very harsh means, both if it takes place during the evacuation, or after we evacuate the Gaza Strip.”

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met Sunday night with Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, who commands the Palestinian forces — the first high-level meeting since an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing July 12 killed five Israelis in the town of Netanya.

Mofaz demanded the Palestinians track down those responsible for the shooting attack, warning Yousef that if he didn’t, Israel would, aides to Mofaz said.

The Israeli pullout is to begin in mid-August, and Sharon has said repeatedly he would not tolerate Palestinian violence then. Israeli soldiers and police are set to impose a wide security perimeter with several concentric circles — several extending into Palestinian territory in Gaza if necessary to halt violence.

Contingency plan: Iron Fist
Military officials said that if there is violence, they would activate a plan code-named Iron Fist, a strategy under which Israeli troops would strike deep into the Gaza Strip, capturing all the areas surrounding the settlements.

During more than four years of violence, Israel has carried out large-scale invasions of Gaza, bombed houses, fired missiles at suspected militants, fired tank shells, blocked roads and imposed closures.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said that maintaining calm during the pullout is in the Palestinian interest. On Saturday, Abbas repeated his pledge to Rice to rein in militants.

Early Sunday, Palestinian gunmen opened fire on Israeli motorists on the heavily guarded road from the Gush Katif bloc of settlements to the Kissufim crossing between Gaza and Israel. The shots killed a Jerusalem couple in their 50s. Five civilians were hurt, the army said.

After the shooting on the vehicle, troops clashed with the gunmen, killing both. Grenades and assault rifles were found on their bodies, the military said.

Palestinian security faulted
Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the Israeli military commander in Gaza, said Palestinian security is allowing “serious violations” of a February truce. He said attacks are met with “inaction or even indifference by the Palestinian security agencies.”

The would-be suicide bomber was caught Friday evening near Kibbutz Nir Am, an Israeli communal farm just outside Gaza.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates on Sunday pledged to build a $100 million housing project for Palestinians in the impoverished Gaza Strip, said Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Authority information minister. The project, consisting of 3,000 homes, will be built on land evacuated by Israel when it pulls out of Gaza next month.

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