Israeli missiles obliterated a car in northern Gaza, killing four Islamic Jihad militants and three other people, just after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared he would not meet the Palestinian leader until he cracks down on militants.
The airstrike Thursday evening capped a full day of violence that pushed the prospects of peace negotiations — so promising after Israel’s Gaza pullout last month — further off the table. Sharon froze diplomatic contacts as he stepped up military pressure, a double-edged response to the latest Palestinian suicide bombing.
Sharon threatened a “broad and relentless” offensive against militants, including mass arrests and airstrikes. But security officials said the assault would stop short of a large-scale military operation.
Strike follows suicide bombing
On Wednesday, a suicide bomber killed five Israelis in an open-air market in the central Israeli town of Hadera, the fourth suicide attack by Islamic Jihad since Abbas negotiated a deal with Palestinian groups in February to abide by a truce with Israel.
Israel hit back hard, repeatedly striking northern Gaza with missiles on Thursday, and raiding a West Bank refugee camp to arrest an Islamic Jihad leader.
After nightfall in the Gaza refugee camp of Jebaliya, Israeli aircraft fired two missiles at a car carrying Islamic Jihad activists. Hospital officials said seven people were killed and 15 wounded.
Among those killed were four Islamic Jihad members, including Shadi Mohanna, the group’s field commander for northern Gaza. Israel said he was responsible for rocket barrages and recruiting attackers.
The missiles struck the white car as it was driving in the camp. The street was crowded with people walking after evening prayers at a mosque. Two charred bodies were pulled from the wreckage, and shrapnel and blood were scattered over a wide area.
In a text message sent to The Associated Press, Khader Habib, an Islamic Jihad spokesman, said the group would retaliate.
“There will be a painful, immediate response for tonight’s crime,” he said.
Group tries to fire missiles into Israel
Late Thursday, Islamic Jihad said it fired rockets at Israel. Witnesses said they landed inside Gaza. There were no reports of casualties.
That was followed early Friday by more Israeli missile fire on northern Gaza, targeting areas where militants fire rockets, residents and the military said.
Islamic Jihad said it carried out the Hadera bombing to avenge Israel’s killing of a top gunmen in the West Bank.
No Sharon-Abbas meeting
Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, condemned the suicide bombing this week. But Israel said he must do much more.
“If the Palestinian Authority does not take serious and tangible action against terrorism, there will be no diplomatic progress and that would be a pity. In such a situation, I will not meet with Abu Mazen,” Sharon said in a statement after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Jerusalem.
There had been repeated efforts in recent weeks to arrange a Sharon-Abbas summit. But Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could not find enough common ground on issues such as Gaza border arrangements, prisoner releases and an Israeli pullout from some West Bank towns.
Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said Sharon’s demands for a crackdown “do not serve the peace process, and we are ready for a meeting between Sharon and Abu Mazen without conditions.”
Security officials said Israeli troops would intensify the hunt for Islamic Jihad members and step up targeted killings of fugitives. In the northern West Bank — an Islamic Jihad stronghold from where the Hadera bomber had been dispatched — the army plans to dig trenches and erect earthen barriers to disrupt Palestinian travel and make it harder for attackers to reach Israel, the officials said.