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Israel Continues Gaza Strikes After First Use of New Rocket

By Mary Curtius
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- jerusalem

Israel launched a second day of retaliatory airstrikes on the Gaza Strip on Monday, blasting a security compound housing imprisoned Islamic militants as politicians debated how best to respond to the Palestinians’ first use of a new rocket.

Right-wing ministers clamored for the government to oust Yasser Arafat and destroy his Palestinian Authority. But Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer backed away from earlier warnings that Israel would respond massively to the use of the Kassam-2 rocket.

“I said that it would be hard to put up with this,” Ben-Eliezer said of the rockets, whose range of three to five miles makes them a threat to cities in the heart of Israel’s coastal plain. “The meaning of this is that we’ll try to deal with this in various ways -- intelligence, interception and operations (to destroy suspected missile factories),” Ben-Eliezer told a committee of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

The target Monday was a large, walled quarter in the heart of Gaza City known as the Saraya compound, headquarters of the Palestinian military intelligence and general security service.

Apache helicopters carried out Monday’s first strike shortly before noon as the morning shift of the school day ended and the afternoon shift began. Hundreds of schoolchildren were on streets crowded with pedestrians when the first missiles slammed into the compound.

Officials at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City reported that 37 people were injured in the attacks.

Hundreds of angry Gazans converged on the compound and demanded the release of prisoners kept there, many of them affiliated with the militant Islamic group Hamas. Palestinian police fired in the air to drive the mob back. Police sources later said they moved some prisoners to keep them safe from further Israeli attacks.

In the West Bank, relatives of prisoners held in a Hebron jail stormed the building Monday, freeing an unknown number of detainees. Palestinian police reportedly did not resist the assault.

The airstrikes in Gaza were a familiar Israeli response to a Palestinian attack; the same security compound has been hit before. Although Monday’s strikes were unusual because they were carried out midday, they were not the sort of dramatic, conflict-transforming retaliation that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Ben-Eliezer had said would come if the Palestinians dared to use the Kassam-2.