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Palestinian Use of Mortar Shells Signals New Escalation of Conflict

By Tracy Wilkinson

Palestinian fighters have added mortars to the arsenal they regularly use against Israel, drawing heavy retaliation and signaling a new phase in half a year of conflict.

In a rare interview, Palestinians who claim responsibility for firing mortar shells into Israel proper, as well as at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, said they already have succeeded in one goal -- unnerving the enemy. Next, they said, they will attempt to improve their aim to exact more casualties.

An Israeli government spokesman on Monday branded the firing of mortars at the Jewish state an act of hostility that marks a dangerous new level of warfare.

Gaza has seen a fierce escalation in recent days, with Palestinians firing mortars at Israeli targets and Israel retaliating with rockets, anti-tank missiles and mortars of its own. There has been minor damage on the Israeli side, while two Palestinian police stations, an office of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement and a civilian home were destroyed over the weekend.

After months of using rocks, assault rifles, Molotov cocktails and the occasional suicide bomber in their fight to oust Israel from the West Bank and Gaza -- and taking the brunt of casualties -- Palestinians have increased both the range and the destructive potential of their firepower by using the mortars.

The use of such weapons also stands in sharp contrast to years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the first intifada, which began in 1987 and in which Palestinians’ choice of arms was much more limited.

In early February, for the first time, Palestinians began lobbing mortar shells at the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in Gaza. On March 18, the first mortars were fired at Israel proper, hitting an army base near the Nahal Oz kibbutz. The kibbutz was hit April 3.

In all, there have been 56 mortar attacks since early February, according to a tally by the Israeli army. Sporadic at first, they are now occurring with regular intensity.

Another shell crashed Monday into the Atzmona Jewish settlement in Gaza. Palestinians said that on Sunday Israelis launched surface-to-surface missiles, another first in the spiral of violence.

No Israelis have been killed in the shelling, but three were injured, including a 1-year-old. The retaliatory rocketing by Israel, which has come swiftly since the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office last month, has injured scores of Palestinian police and civilians.

“We consider ourselves to be free to act against Israeli targets, without restraint, whether inside or outside of Gaza,” said the leader of a unit that has carried out shelling.