Israel authorizes army to invade northern Gaza after militant rockets hit Ashkelon
BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip – Israel stepped up pressure Wednesday on Hamas militants who launched improved, longer range rockets into the heart of a major Israeli city, authorizing the army to enter populated areas in northern Gaza.Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers entered one of Israel’s former settlements in northern Gaza Wednesday night and opened fire on a nearby Palestinian town, Palestinian officials and witnesses said.The Israeli military did not immediately confirm the movement into northern Gaza.Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert convened his Security Cabinet and met with top military officials after militants fired rockets on Tuesday into Ashkelon, a southern Israeli city of 110,000 people.Militants fired more rockets into southern Israel Wednesday, hitting an orchard in Ashkelon and the town of Zikim near the Gaza border. No one was hurt in any of the attacks, but it was the first time rockets have penetrated so far into Israel, showing militants have improved the range of the primitive weapons.The planned invasion threatened to be far bloodier than Israel’s week-old offensive in the Gaza Strip aimed at freeing an abducted soldier held by Hamas-linked militants.The movement by Israeli forces on Wednesday night into the abandoned settlement of Nissanit appeared to be part of that new offensive.Israeli forces and settlers withdrew from Gaza nearly a year ago, destroying all 21 Jewish settlements.An AP reporter in the nearby town of Beit Lahiya said five Israeli tanks, followed by armored personnel carriers, were making their way very slowly into the old settlement. Two other tanks took up positions atop a nearby hill as bulldozers built sand embankments around them.Israel shelled a northern Gaza beach early Thursday, Palestinian witnesses said, killing a Hamas militant and wounding seven officers from the Palestinian coastal police, four of them seriously. Palestinian security officials said the target was apparently a coastal police station.A car carrying reporters from the Al-Jazeera Arabic television channel came under fire from Palestinians in northern Gaza, and two were wounded, according to one of the reporters, Wael Dahdouh. He said the gunmen apparently thought the reporters were Israeli undercover agents.Earlier in the day, Olmert met ministers in his Security Cabinet and top military officials to decide which parts of a broad invasion should be immediately implemented.Participants in the meeting said the Security Cabinet agreed a standing plan by the army to create a buffer zone in northern Gaza could be an effective way of preventing rocket fire. Olmert’s office denied the Cabinet had approved the formation of such a zone.To carve out a sufficiently wide buffer zone to protect Israeli towns from rocket attacks, the army might have to go into densely populated areas where it can expect fierce resistance from Palestinian militants.”There will be steps taken and they will be very serious,” said Cabinet Minister Yitzhak Herzog. “There is a very broad operation here. It will continue.”Israel has massed soldiers on its border with northern Gaza since June 29, but officials postponed a planned invasion as international mediators sought a way out of the standoff over Cpl. Gilad Shalit. The 19-year-old soldier was captured by Palestinian militants on June 25.Justice Minister Haim Ramon said Wednesday he believes Shalit, who reportedly was wounded in the attack, is alive and being held somewhere in Gaza.The Security Cabinet’s decision to step up a ground offensive indicated Israel may be prepared to partially reoccupy Gaza less than a year after withdrawing all troops and settlements from the area.As Egyptian and Turkish mediators tried to end the worsening crisis, Mohammed Awad, the Palestinian Cabinet secretary, told reporters in Gaza Wednesday that the “Israeli escalation is posing a threat to these ongoing efforts and it must stop.”In Cairo, Egypt’s mediation efforts ground to a halt because Hamas’ Syria-based political chief Khaled Mashaal refused to press for the unconditional release of Shalit and because of growing mistrust between Egypt and Hamas, Egyptian and Palestinian officials said.Mashaal has denied claims by Israel that he masterminded Shalit’s capture.Mashaal was turning his attention to Turkey, which has stepped up diplomacy in an effort to end the standoff, the Palestinian officials said.The Hamas-linked militants holding the soldier have demanded Israel release about 1,500 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for information about the captive.On Tuesday, Olmert ignored a deadline to begin freeing prisoners. Israel has publicly refused to negotiate with the militants, but could be indirectly communicating with Hamas through the Egyptian or Turkish mediators.U.N. Mideast envoy Alvaro de Soto urged both sides to show restraint.”We hope that it will be possible for both sides to stop for a minute and reflect on this situation and not allow it to get any worse than it already is,” de Soto told The Associated Press.A statement from Olmert’s office gave no details about the military operation, but said the army would continue to go after Hamas militants and their infrastructure.It said the army has been ordered to “prepare for a phased and continuous” operation. Its main goals remain to find Shalit and to prevent more rocket fire into Israel, the statement said.Israel could establish a security zone in its abandoned former settlements in northern Gaza, vacant lands that militants use to fire rockets which Israel could seize with relatively little bloodshed.If Israel wants a broader zone, it might have to enter the northern towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, which would likely lead to bloody street battles with militants.At the Erez industrial zone on the Gaza border, which has been shut since hostilities escalated, troops opened fire at Palestinians who were apparently looting closed businesses, wounding a 13-year-old boy in the head, Palestinian medics said. The army said it had no knowledge of the incident.Soldiers also caught a Palestinian militant in the West Bank with an explosives belt strapped to his waist, the army said. The militant was caught in the West Bank settlement of Barkan before he had a chance to detonate his explosives, the army said.Palestinian officials said the would-be bomber was a 17-year-old member of the Islamic Jihad militant group.