Israeli forces launch Gaza sweep to halt firing of Palestinian rockets


JERUSALEM - Israeli soldiers and tanks swept into the northern Gaza Strip yesterday in what the military said was the latest attempt to prevent Palestinian militants from firing rockets into communities in southern Israel.

The sweeps into Beit Hanoun and Jabaliya followed a series of attacks by militants firing primitive Kassam rockets into Israeli towns across the border from the Gaza Strip. One of those volleys injured an Israeli woman early yesterday in the town of Sederot, which has been a frequent target.

Later, an Israeli factory worker was seriously injured when mortar shells struck an industrial park next to the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said he told the army to take vigorous action against militants who fire mortars and rockets at Jewish settlements in Gaza and across the border into Israel.

A military spokeswoman said an Israeli soldier was wounded by an anti-tank missile during the operation. After nightfall, Israeli forces pulled back to positions overlooking northern Gaza, the military said.

A Palestinian cameraman for an Israeli television station was wounded by military gunfire, Israeli news media reported. The spokeswoman said she had no immediate information on the shooting.

The incursion in northern Gaza began hours after a separate Israeli operation ended in Khan Yunis in the southern portion of the coastal strip, where Israeli forces have sought in recent days to stem the firing of rockets at nearby Jewish settlements.

The newest Gaza operation took place not far from where the interim Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, was campaigning in his bid to be elected president of the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas, who is largely viewed as a pragmatist, replaced longtime leader Yasser Arafat as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Abbas has called for an end to armed resistance against Israel but has used recent campaign events to solidify his support among militants and their backers.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that he was disturbed by a photograph that showed a leading Palestinian militant carrying Abbas on his shoulders during a recent appearance in the West Bank.

However, Powell said on NBC's Meet the Press that he believes Abbas recognizes "the need to end terror and the need to try to persuade all segments of the Palestinian population to move away from terror and to move toward this opportunity for peace."

Powell said that if Abbas wins next Sunday's election, "I think he knows that the only way forward with a successful election behind him is to reform the Palestinian Authority, end corruption, make sure that it's an authority that rests on law, reform the security services."

Abbas has said that armed struggle has done more harm than good for Palestinians.

The most recent opinion poll, issued yesterday, had Abbas leading in the campaign by a nearly 3-to-1 margin over his nearest competitor.

The poll, by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, showed Abbas with the support of 65 percent of respondents who said they plan to vote, compared with 22 percent for Mustafa Barghouti, a physician and human rights activist. The poll has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Abbas is more popular in the Gaza Strip, a stronghold of militant groups such as Hamas, than in the West Bank, according to the poll.

In other developments, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his Cabinet yesterday that he intends to seek ministers' final approval this month for his planned withdrawal of settlers and soldiers from Gaza and part of the West Bank, Israeli news media reported.

The Cabinet vote would come more than a month earlier than planned in order to give settlers time to evacuate their homes before they are ordered out next summer. About 8,000 Israelis live in the 21 Gaza settlements, all of which are to be evacuated. A few hundred others live in four tiny communities in the northern West Bank that also are to be abandoned.

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