Israeli aircraft attacked suspected weapons factories Monday throughout the Gaza Strip, pushing forward an offensive against Palestinian militants despite a pledge by a top Hamas leader to halt rocket fire against Israel.
The violence came as top officials from the ruling Likud Party voted in a crucial poll that could determine whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remains in the party or dissolves the government and creates a new centrist party.
The vote was ostensibly about whether to move up the party primary from April to November, but Sharon and his main party challenger, Benjamin Netanyahu, have turned the poll into a vote of confidence. Many party hard-liners said they will use their votes to punish Sharon for his pullout from the Gaza Strip.
“I hope that members of the party will come to vote against this proposal, which will badly harm the Likud,” a smiling Sharon said as he cast his ballot.
Sharon was thwarted from addressing a party convention Sunday night when his microphone cut out twice. Likud officials said the sound system had been sabotaged. After waiting for nearly half an hour, Sharon left the hall without speaking.
Sharon’s allies have suggested that if party activists vote to move up the primary against his wishes, he might not bother challenging Netanyahu at all, choosing instead to bolt the party and form a new party to run in early elections.
Netanyahu gains ground amid violence
Recent opinion polls gave Netanyahu a slight advantage. Netanyahu has argued that the Gaza pullout will harm Israeli security by giving militants free rein in the coastal strip, and fresh Israeli-Palestinian violence appears to have bolstered Israeli hard-liners.
After completing its Gaza withdrawal two weeks ago, Israel said it would respond harshly to any attacks from the strip. It launched its wide-ranging offensive after Gaza militants launched a barrage of rockets at Israeli communities over the weekend.
The airstrikes early Monday hit targets around Gaza City as well as the southern towns of Rafah and Khan Younis. They knocked out power to the eastern part of Gaza City and caused damage to several buildings, but no injuries were reported.
The army said its targets included an access road leading to a rocket-launching site in northern Gaza, and weapons-manufacturing factories and storage facilities belonging to various militant groups.
Later in the day, aircraft fired missiles at an empty field that militants used to launch rockets at Israel, in a strike meant to deter further attacks, the military said.
Hamas leader urges continuation of cease-fire
Israel pressed ahead with its air campaign despite a call by Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar to end the group’s rocket attacks. Zahar said Hamas remained committed to a 7-month-old cease-fire and he wanted to prevent further Israeli attacks.
“We call on our military groups to stop their operations against the enemy from the Gaza Strip,” he said.
Even if Hamas stops its rocket attacks, it remains unclear whether smaller militant groups would follow suit. Islamic Jihad’s top leader in Gaza, Mohammed al-Hindi, said the group would no longer observe the cease-fire following a deadly airstrike Sunday that killed Islamic Jihad’s top commander in southern Gaza, Mohammed Khalil, and his bodyguard.
“There is no talk of a truce, there is only room for talk of war,” al-Hindi said.
Israeli security officials said they would wait to see whether the Palestinian attacks would in fact halt before calling off the military offensive. On Monday afternoon, militants launched a mortar shell at an Israeli community north of Gaza, the army said. There were no injuries or damage, they said.
Israeli official: At the mercy of extremists
The army said Khalil was responsible for the deaths of 17 Israelis, including a shooting attack that killed a pregnant woman and her four young daughters as they drove near a Jewish settlement in May 2004.
Although the truce has brought a sharp drop in fighting, Islamic Jihad has carried out a series of attacks since it went into effect, including three suicide bombings in Israel. The group says all of its attacks have been in response to perceived Israeli violations of the truce.
Israel has pushed Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to crack down on militant groups before peace talks can resume.
“As long as extremists have the ability to torpedo the process of reconciliation and to launch attacks, we will be at their mercy,” said Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Abbas has refused to order a crackdown, saying his forces are not strong enough to take on militants and that he fears sparking a civil war. He has tried instead to persuade them to lay down their arms peacefully.
Attacks target Palestinian official
Late Sunday, Gaza gunmen attacked the home of Tawfiq Abu Khoussa, spokesman of the Palestinian Interior Ministry, which oversees the security forces. He was not hurt.
Abu Khoussa said the attack was the third attempt on his life in recent days and hinted that Hamas was behind the shooting.
The group has criticized Abu Khoussa and other Palestinian officials for blaming Hamas for a blast at a Hamas rally last week that killed 20 people in a Gaza refugee camp.
Hamas accused Israel of setting off the explosion and responded by firing nearly 40 rockets into southern Israel, slightly wounding six people and sparking the Israeli offensive.
But Palestinian Authority officials said the blast was caused by the mishandling of explosives. Israel, which routinely claims responsibility for attacks on militants, denied involvement.