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Rocket Attack on Jewish Settlements Leads Abbas to Fire Security Chiefs

By Greg Myre

The New York Times -- JERUSALEM

In the first serious test of the Israeli-Palestinian truce, the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, on Thursday fired three of his security chiefs after Palestinian factions staged a mortar and rocket attack on Jewish settlements in the southern Gaza Strip.

His aides said the sharp, swift response reflected Abbas’ determination to enforce the cease-fire he announced along with Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, at Tuesday’s summit meeting in Egypt.

In the aftermath of the shelling, Abbas presided over an emergency session of the central committee of his Fatah movement, which strongly denounced the attacks by Hamas and other factions. The committee called the shelling “irresponsible acts that harm our security and the high national interests of our people.”

Abbas then sacked three prominent security chiefs in Gaza, and a number of lower-ranking officers also lost their jobs, Palestinian officials said.

His decisive action puts him in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who died in November. After the Palestinian uprising began in 2000, Arafat did not demand that the Palestinian security forces act to prevent violence against Israel.

But Abbas’ moves are likely to meet resistance from some elements in the Palestinian security forces, who view a crackdown against fellow Palestinians as the equivalent of subcontracting work on behalf of Israel.

And Abbas is courting confrontation with Hamas and the other armed factions, which say they are not bound by the truce.

Hamas launched the mortar and rocket barrage before dawn on Thursday, calling it retaliation for the deaths of two Palestinians in southern Gaza a day earlier.

More than 20 mortars and rockets rained down on the main Jewish settlement bloc in the southwestern corner of Gaza, with the attack centered on the Neve Dekalim settlement, the Israeli military said. No one was hurt, though one home was slightly damaged.

Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, two other armed factions, also said they had also taken part in the shelling.

The Palestinian groups said they launched around 50 mortars and rockets. Some fell short of their mark and landed in Palestinian areas, according to Palestinian security officials.

The Palestinians have fired several thousand mortars toward the settlements in the last four years, but casualties and serious damage are rare. The shelling had diminished, though it had not stopped, since the factions made a pledge last month to Abbas to suspend attacks temporarily.