A new Israeli military operation has many wondering if the army now has the Gaza Strip in its sights.
For months, Israeli forces have been engaged in a massive anti-terror operation in the West Bank, but have not carried out such operations in Gaza. Several reasons were given, including the argument that an incursion into the densely populated area would exact heavy Israeli casualties. Israeli officials also said a security fence between Israel and Gaza was preventing terrorists from attacking Israeli targets.
In recent weeks, however, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke of the inevitability of military action in Gaza to root out the terrorist infrastructure there.
Following a series of Palestinian mortar and rocket attacks from Gaza, the army carried out a strike in Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, early Monday. Fourteen Palestinians were killed and more than 100 injured in the raid on a Hamas stronghold.
On Tuesday, the White House expressed concern over Israeli raids "that have resulted in the deaths and wounding of many Palestinian civilians.
"While the administration supports Israel's right to self-defense, it is critical that Israeli forces make every effort to avoid harm to civilians in exercising that right," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a statement. "The president urges Israel to minimize the risk to civilian populations in areas in which Israeli Defense Forces are operating."
The Israeli army denied Palestinian claims that a military helicopter fired a missile at a crowd of civilians outside a mosque. The army said the missile was fired at armed Palestinians who were shooting and throwing grenades at Israeli soldiers. During the operation, Israeli troops detained a Palestinian with a bomb and blew up a bag containing three mortars, Army Radio reported. Palestinian officials denounced the strike as a massacre and called for international protection.
During clashes later in the area, eight people were wounded by Israeli fire directed at a Palestinian hospital. The army said it targeted the hospital after Palestinians fired from the facility at a nearby Israeli settlement.
Shortly after the military operation ended, Palestinians fired three mortars at an Israeli settlement in southern Gaza, but caused no injuries. A senior Hamas official called for revenge and urged all Palestinian groups to attack Israel.
On Tuesday, Sharon said the raid had been a success and that Israel would continue its anti-terror operations in Gaza. He expressed regret for the civilian casualties but said Israel had to prevent future terror attacks. Because of the Palestinian civilian casualties, the Israeli army operation drew international protests, including from the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.
On Tuesday, the Israeli commander in Gaza, Brig. Gen. Israel Ziv, acknowledged that none of the 14 people killed in the raid was wanted by Israel. A day earlier, Ziv told Army Radio the operation was "very important [because it made] clear to the other side that there is no place that constitutes a fortress against the Israel Defense Forces."
Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said Israel was trying to disrupt a mission to the region by E.U.'s top diplomat, Javier Solana.
"Every time we see efforts to get the peace process back on track, the government of Israel commits new war crimes against innocent civilians," said Erekat in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.
With the threat of more violence in the offing, and the United States asking Israel to avoid flare-ups that could distract attention from the U.S. campaign against Iraq, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres defended the operation.
"Israel tries to employ restraint, but it is committed to acting to prevent terrorist activity,'" Peres told Army Radio.