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Israeli Attack on Gaza Strip Likely After Suicide Bombing

By Mary Curtius
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- gaza city

Israeli tanks and troops moved close to the Gaza Strip on Thursday, and state-run media said an attack was imminent in retaliation for a suicide bombing Tuesday that killed 15 Israelis.

Gazans sent their children to school and went to work, but also laid in stores of food, fearing the sort of siege on their towns, villages and refugee camps that the Israeli army imposed in the West Bank during the invasion launched March 29. The army issued call-ups to an unknown number of reserve soldiers, normally a sign that a large-scale operation is in the offing.

After nightfall, street traffic in Gaza City was light, but restaurants were open. At a popular beach hotel, groups of men gathered to smoke water pipes and argue politics on a balcony overlooking the sea.

“What are we supposed to do, head for the bunkers?” shrugged Ziad abu Amer, a Gazan representative to the Palestinian legislature.

Israeli security sources believe that the man who blew himself up Tuesday night at a snooker club in the Israeli town of Rishon Le Zion was a member of the militant movement Hamas and came from Gaza. But a spokesman for the Islamic organization said he did not know who carried out the attack.

“I don’t know who did it, but we expect that angry Palestinians will do more such attacks,” said Ismail abu Shanab in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Hamas issued no formal claim of responsibility for the attack.

Abu Shanab mildly criticized the bombing, which he called “this act of resistance,” noting that “maybe this is a critical time and maybe it is better not to do it at this time.” Hamas has carried out more suicide attacks on Israelis than any other Palestinian group since fighting erupted in September 2000. There have been a total of about 60 attacks, many of them in the heart of Israeli cities.

The organization says it wants to destroy the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians and to eliminate the Jewish state. But it does not want to be blamed for triggering either Israel’s knockout blow to the already weakened Palestinian Authority or the expulsion of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The army swept into six of the West Banks eight major cities in the West Bank operation, occupying some for several weeks, but stayed out of Palestinian-controlled areas of Gaza.

The strip is the stronghold of Islamic militant organizations that have carried out suicide bombings, but Palestinian attackers sent from here rarely penetrate the heavily patrolled fence that separates Gaza from Israel. Last month, security officials argued that Gaza was relatively contained and that the army would pay too high a price in casualties if it mounted a massive ground operation.

But those constraints appear to have been swept away by the Rishon bombing, the deadliest attack by Palestinians since the army’s West Bank operation.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the coming operation would be “functional, not territorial,” a “pinpointed” targeting of militant groups rather than an occupation of territory.

But a worried Palestinian Authority, desperate to stave off another crippling blow to its infrastructure, arrested 16 Hamas members in Gaza after Arafat condemned the Rishon bombing in a televised Arabic statement as a terrorist act.