By Nidal al-Mughrabi 1 hour ago
GAZA (Reuters) - Gaza militants have struck the border with Israel and launched barrages of rockets into the Jewish state, defying calls for a halt to attacks from the frontrunner to succeed Yasser Arafat.
Violence has surged in the Gaza Strip ahead of Sunday's presidential election, likely to be won by moderate Mahmoud Abbas, who has called for a truce in the 4-year-old uprising to allow talks with Israel to resume.
Raising doubts over new peace hopes following Arafat's death, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Wednesday he did not think the Palestinians could achieve anything if violence continued.
Troops shot dead a Palestinian gunman who attacked them at the Erez border crossing, the day after an Israeli shell killed seven young Palestinians in a Gaza strawberry field. Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed the attack.
Twelve soldiers were wounded by a rocket attack from Gaza on a base inside Israel. The Islamic militant group Hamas said it fired at the base to avenge the deaths on Tuesday.
Fighters have defied calls from Abbas, known to many as Abu Mazen, for a halt to attacks that he says are useless because they draw Israeli retaliation. Israel has stepped up raids into Gaza to curb mortar and rocket fire.
"Abu Mazen's statements shocked the Palestinian people and contradicted the consensus," said Sami Abu Zuhri of Hamas.
"Resistance will continue until occupation ends."
ABBAS TRYING TO CO-OPT MILITANTS
Bringing the militants on board will be the most important challenge for Abbas after Sunday's elections, for which polls show that he is the overwhelming favourite.
Few believe renewed hopes for peace in the Middle East following Arafat's death on November 11 will last long if Abbas fails to ensure a stop to attacks.
"If the Palestinians continue what is going on now they will not be able to achieve any national goal, in my opinion," Sharon told soldiers on Tuesday.
He has vowed to crush Gaza militants who hope to bloody the army before it evacuates settlers from the occupied territory under a plan to "disengage" from conflict with the Palestinians.
On the campaign trail Abbas has pledged to work to co-opt the militants rather than using force to rein them in and stepped up his rhetoric -- calling Israel the "Zionist enemy" in unprecedented words after the Palestinian deaths on Tuesday.
Three policemen on the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing were wounded in Wednesday's shooting and taken to an Israeli hospital for treatment. Palestinian witnesses said Israel refused Palestinian ambulances access.
A convoy of 400 Haj pilgrims heading out of occupied Gaza for Mecca in Saudi Arabia was turned back at Erez by troops searching the crossing after the attack. Soldiers found a bomb which was destroyed in a controlled explosion, the army said.
A total of 4,500 Haj pilgrims have been given permits to make the journey via Israel and Egypt.
"The attack was directed against us but it hampers our efforts to allow those Palestinians to leave for the Haj. It has proved totally counterproductive," said Colonel Avi Levy.
In the strawberry field incident, the army said it had targeted militants who had crept into the area and fired mortar bombs into a nearby Jewish settlement, wounding two people.
The army commander in north Gaza expressed regret "if civilians were indeed hurt".
Israel Issues Warning on Eve of Palestinian Vote
Sat Jan 8, 2005 05:39 AM ET
By Wafa Amr
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - A deadly Palestinian attack in the West Bank drew a threat from Israel Saturday to scrap a promise to limit military operations on the eve of a presidential election to pick a successor to Yasser Arafat.
"We (pledged to) to ease off for 72 hours under agreement with the Palestinians, so that their security forces would take over responsibilities for the relevant areas," a senior Israeli security source said.
"If they fail to make good on that, we will have no choice but to act," the source said, a day after Palestinian gunmen ambushed a car carrying soldiers in civilian clothes in the West Bank, killing one of them and wounding three.
Israel Radio said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, an international monitor in Sunday's ballot, was asked by an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to deliver the warning to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, the front-running candidate.
Abbas has called on militants to end violence in a 4-year-old Palestinian uprising. Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed group in Abbas' dominant Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for the West Bank ambush.
"We made clear to the emissaries overseeing the elections that this sort of thing cannot go on. We will not tolerate continued terrorist attacks on our citizens," the Israeli security source said.
In the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers shot dead a 60-year-old Palestinian who was in a car at a junction near an army post and a Jewish settlement, local medics said. The army said troops opened fire at a gunman who approached a military position.
Palestinian officials and media appealed to voters to cast their ballots in the first presidential election in the Palestinian territories since 1996. But there was no sign of any loosening of Israel's military grip around West Bank cities.
"The Palestinians and their cars are being checked at the roadblocks. This is not what we call easing of restrictions," Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said.
Israeli military sources have said those checkpoints would remain in place but the army intended to refrain from carrying out operations against militants a day before the vote, on election day and the day after.