Israel to enforce off-limits zone in northern Gaza |

Israel to enforce off-limits zone in northern Gaza

JERUSALEM – Israel will enforce a new off-limits zone in the Gaza Strip with artillery, helicopter and gunboat fire, its latest response to Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli towns, defense officials said Friday.The promised barrage would mark some of Israel’s toughest military action in Gaza since it withdrew from the coastal strip in September. Palestinian officials on Friday promised to send more of their security forces to the Gaza border to prevent rocket attacks.Israel’s deputy defense minister, Zeev Boim, said the no-go zone was part of Israel’s stepped-up response to the militant rocket fire, which has intensified since the Gaza withdrawal. Israel has launched missiles and artillery fire at suspected launching areas and killed several militants in recent months.Israel hopes the Palestinians “will get the message and that this will stop the rocket squads,” Boim told Israel Radio. “If we must, we will have to tighten the screw further.”Boim ruled out a major ground offensive in Gaza and acknowledged that the highly inaccurate homemade Qassam rockets do not pose a strategic threat to Israel.The rockets have a range of about six miles. Since the Gaza pullout, militants have been able to move their launch sites closer to a border fence, bringing the Israeli city of Ashkelon into range, along with sensitive infrastructure installations including a power plant and a fuel depot.Preferred launch sites have been the ruins of three Jewish settlements in northern Gaza, close to the border with Israel.The “no-go zone” will be 1.5 miles deep and run along the northern and eastern edges of Gaza, defense officials said. Gaza is about 25 miles long and six miles wide. The officials said the banned areas are uninhabited, although they include Palestinian farmland.Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has ignored previous Israeli calls to crack down on militants, has ordered the deployment of additional security forces along the border in a bid to restore calm, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.The violence has come amid Palestinian and Israeli election campaigns. Continued fighting could hurt Abbas’ Fatah Party, which faces a tough challenge from the militant Islamic Hamas.Fatah also has been weakened by infighting between party veterans and its disgruntled “young guard,” which split from the party last week and presented a separate list of candidates under the name “Future.”Eager to bring the young guard back, Abbas agreed to award top slots on the Fatah list of candidates to younger activists who did well in recent primaries. The move, which still needs court approval, has upset party veterans, who now will have to compete in district voting where re-election is not guaranteed.Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and Rauhi Fattouh, upset with the compromise, have decided not to run for parliament, a top Fatah official said Friday. The two men, however, will likely receive political appointments as ministers in the next government.”Fatah is passing a real crisis. We hope to end this crisis between now and the elections in order to win the election,” said Abbas Zaki, a member of Fatah’s central committee.In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s personal physician said the Israeli leader’s medical records show he has normal cholesterol and blood pressure levels. With elections scheduled in March, Sharon’s health has become a campaign issue since he suffered a mild stroke earlier this week.Polls published Friday showed Sharon’s new centrist party, Kadima, retains a solid lead over the moderate Labor Party.Kadima would win 40 of 120 seats in parliament, while Labor would get 19 seats, according to the daily newspaper Maariv’s poll, which had a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points. The hard-line Likud Party, which Sharon bolted to form Kadima, would win 15 seats under its new leader, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Vail, Colorado

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