A Palestinian rocket exploded in an Israeli army base early Tuesday, wounding 50 soldiers and drawing calls for a major military operation against rocket squads in the Gaza Strip.
The wounded soldiers were all recent recruits undergoing basic training, and were asleep when the rocket hit an empty tent, the army said. Eleven soldiers in nearby tents were seriously wounded in the attack, another 39 were lightly injured, and several others were suffering from shock, according to the army.
Tuesday’s incident marks the largest number of injuries ever sustained in a single Palestinian rocket attack, and came at a time when Israeli politicians and defense officials have been calling for a more aggressive Israeli response.
“Long ago, several years ago, we should have responded strongly...In the end we will have no choice but to act,” Cabinet minister Eli Yishai told Army Radio on Tuesday morning.
On Tuesday morning, four Palestinian civilians between the ages of 5 and 21, members of the same family, were wounded by Israeli fire in northern Gaza, according to Dr. Muawiya Hassanin of Gaza’s Health Ministry. Two girls — a 7-year-old and a 17-year-old — remained hospitalized, Hassanin said.
The army confirmed that ground forces attacked the area where militants earlier launched the rocket that hit the base.
Two small extremist groups, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, claimed responsibility for the rocket attack in a joint statement faxed to reporters. Fearing retaliation, Islamic Jihad ordered its militants to avoid using cell phones and public transportation so they could not be tracked and targeted by Israeli forces.
Near daily attacks
Sderot, a working-class town of 22,000 near the Israel-Gaza border, and surrounding towns have been battered by thousands of projectiles launched nearly daily from Gaza. The inaccurate rockets have killed 12 people in the past seven years, injured dozens more and disrupted daily life in the region.
Most of the recent fire has been carried out by Islamic Jihad. Though Gaza’s Hamas rulers have not been actively involved, they have pointedly done nothing to halt the attacks.
Another rocket hit an Israeli kibbutz near Gaza several hours after the attack on the base, the army said. In a separate attack, Hamas militants announced they had launched a mortar barrage at Kerem Shalom, a border crossing where humanitarian aid crosses from Israel into Gaza. There were no casualties in either attack.
Attacks last week on Sderot, including a rocket that landed near a crowded day care center, led parents to pull their children out of school and brought demands for harsh retaliation. Israel’s Security Cabinet last week rejected calls for a large-scale Gaza invasion but threatened to cut water, electricity and fuel supplies to the impoverished strip.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has repeatedly said that Israel would show no restraint in its efforts to stem the attacks from Gaza, but has thus far resisted ordering a land invasion.
The military carries out almost daily ground and air strikes aimed at rocket-launching squads in northern Gaza, but the crude rockets continue to baffle the high-tech military.
Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, but militants continued launching rockets at Israeli towns. The Israeli army has mounted several large-scale military operations in Gaza over the past two years, with casualties on both sides, but those moves had no long-term effect on the number of rockets hitting Israel.
The pre-dawn attack comes a day after Israeli and Palestinian leaders met in Jerusalem in advance of a November conference called by President Bush.
At their three-hour summit conference Monday, Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas discussed “ways of advancing the peace process and of reaching a two-state solution,” said Olmert spokesman David Baker.
Abbas called the talks “successful” and said two working groups would be set up to draft outlines of a peace accord in advance of the November conference.
In gestures toward Abbas, Israel also pledged to release some Palestinian prisoners during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that begins this week and work on easing travel restrictions in the West Bank.
Olmert hopes to bolster Abbas and his Western-backed government in the West Bank after the Islamic Hamas movement seized power in the Gaza Strip in June. Abbas’ subsequent ouster of Hamas from the Palestinian government has freed the moderate leader to pursue peace efforts with Israel.
Abbas has condemned the recent wave of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel, saying the barrages are threatening the peace process. While Abbas claims to have authority over Gaza, he has had little influence there following the Hamas takeover.