Israeli forces today took over an area of northern Gaza that used to be home to three Jewish settlements, creating a temporary buffer zone meant to prevent Palestinian militants from firing rockets at Israeli towns and cities.
The army’s operation is the largest in the coastal area since it withdrew from the territory a year ago.
The operation – launched last week after an attack on a military outpost – was expanded overnight after militants from the ruling Hamas group fired two home-made rockets at Ashkelon, hitting the southern Israeli city of 110,000 that used to be out of range.
The tanks and troops will avoid entering densely populated areas, including the towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, and harming innocent civilians, said Cabinet minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, but will ensure that rockets do not hit Ashkelon or the nearby rural town of Sderot, which has been a target for four years.
No one was hurt in the attacks on Ashkelon, but it infuriated Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who pledged the rocket strikes would have “far-reaching consequences”.
Troops are also searching for a soldier captured last week by Palestinian militants during their brazen attack on the army outpost.
“The presence that is there is not meant to reoccupy Gaza because we decided to leave Gaza … the entrances and exits will be on and off,” Ben-Eliezer told Israel’s Army Radio.
Israeli artillery and aircraft assisted the ground troops, striking bases and groups of militants. Early today, Hamas officials said one militant was killed and another wounded in an airstrike on the beach. The army said the air force had targeted an armed militant.
In another incident, two people, a Hamas militant and a Palestinian policeman, were killed and 11 others wounded in an explosion along the northern part of the Gaza beach.
Palestinians said Israeli tanks or gunboats shelled the area; Israel denied that, but the military was checking whether an airstrike was involved.
The destroyed Gaza settlements – Nissanit, Dugit and Elei Sinai – are in a strategic location just along the border with Israel. Before Israel dismantled its Gaza communities, critics of the withdrawal warned the pull-out would put more Israeli cities within rocket range.
A buffer zone could be the only way to keep Israeli population centres out of rocket range. But such a zone brings back bitter memories of a similar tactic Israel used in southern Lebanon, when its forces held onto a security zone for 18 years in an attempt to prevent Hezbollah guerrillas from firing rockets at Israel.
The guerrillas still fired rockets, and the zone became a deadly battlefield. Pressure from concerned parents and Israelis opposed to the occupation finally forced Israel to withdraw in May 2000.
Hamas said in a statement that the rocket fired at Ashkelon was a new longer-range weapon that can hit targets at least seven miles away. So it was possible a Gaza buffer zone would have to run deeper than the area of the abandoned settlements, bringing forces into populated areas the army s reluctant to enter.
Forces also remain in southern Gaza, an area invaded after the June 25 attack when Cpl Gilad Shalit was captured. Their main goal is to find Shalit.
In nearby Beit Lahiya, Palestinians fired at a car carrying a crew from the Arabic satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera in the town, wounding two people, said Wael Dahdouh, one of the reporters in the car.
The gunmen apparently thought the reporters were Israeli undercover agents, he said.
At his daily briefing, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Palestinians must release the soldier and stop the rocket attacks, but he called on Israel to show restraint so that in the future, “there is the possibility of a negotiated settlement”.
Egyptian and Turkish mediators are trying to end to the worsening crisis caused by the capture of Shalit.
The Hamas-linked militants holding him have demanded that Israel release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for information about the captive. Israel has publicly refused to negotiate with the militants holding Shalit, but could be indirectly communicating with Hamas through mediators.
In a statement, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on both sides to “step back from the brink”.
He said the soldier must be released and Israel must avoid collective punishment of the Palestinian people.
Israel clamped a total closure on Gaza after the soldier was captured, trying to prevent militants from moving him out of Gaza. In the past two days, Israel has reopened two crossings to allow badly-needed food and fuel into Gaza.
The Gaza-Egypt border is to open briefly today to allow Palestinians stuck on either side to return home.