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3 Israeli Soldiers Killed in Gaza Attack

The strike on a small outpost renews debate over Sharon's pullout plan. Islamic Jihad and two other factions take joint responsibility.

September 24, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Under cover of heavy fog, a trio of Palestinian gunmen slipped into an isolated Israeli army outpost in the Gaza Strip before dawn Thursday, killing three Israeli soldiers before being shot dead by troops.

The attack, which inflicted Israel's worst one-day combat casualty toll in Gaza in more than four months, reignited impassioned debate over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the seaside territory.

Opponents of the pullout repeated their claims that leaving would amount to a dangerous capitulation to Palestinian militants.

Supporters of the initiative said the infiltration underscored the unacceptable risks faced by young soldiers who are charged with guarding about 8,000 Jewish settlers who live in heavily fortified enclaves among more than 1.2 million Palestinians in Gaza.

Islamic Jihad, in concert with two lesser known Palestinian factions, claimed joint responsibility for the attack on the outpost protecting the small settlement of Morag in southern Gaza. Such collaborative efforts have become a trademark practice of Palestinian militant groups, a development that is worrying to the Israeli military.

For Israelis, the deaths of the three soldiers, ranging in age from 20 to 22, were all the more wrenching coming only a day before the start of Yom Kippur, the most solemn occasion of the Jewish year. The day of fasting and atonement begins this evening and ends Saturday night; during it, Israel comes to a near-standstill.

The attack also came less than 24 hours after a female Palestinian suicide bomber killed two members of Israel's paramilitary border police when she blew herself up after being confronted at a checkpoint at the northern entrance to Jerusalem. Both officers were new recruits.

In Gaza, Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas constantly refine their methods of striking at Israeli military outposts.

In June, Hamas tunneled under an outpost between the settlements of Gush Katif and Netzarim and blew it up. One Israeli soldier was killed and five were wounded, and military officials said a much higher toll was averted only because the diggers did not manage to plant their explosive charges directly under the barracks.

Hours after Thursday's attack, the Israeli army destroyed an abandoned building near Netzarim, which it said had been used as cover for sniper attacks against soldiers in central Gaza. Later, troops bulldozed several Palestinian orchards and farm fields near Morag, said witnesses in adjoining Palestinian villages.

Thursday's assault appeared to be carefully coordinated, with the gunmen approaching as fog shrouded the area, choosing a time when some of the troops at the outpost were preparing to set out on dawn patrol.

"This was an effective combined attack," the deputy commander of Israel's Gaza battalion, Lt. Col. Dotan Razili, told Reuters news agency.

Embarrassingly for army brass, one of the three Palestinian gunmen -- still at large hours after the initial attack -- shot and wounded an Israeli news photographer as the military convened a press briefing while troops were searching the area for the assailant.

Using a settlement greenhouse as cover, the gunman opened fire on journalists and soldiers; troops then shot him dead. Israel's Army Radio, broadcasting from the site, carried the fight live.

The predawn attack was followed by hours of bitter public recriminations by opponents and backers of Sharon's pullout plan.

Lawmaker Aryeh Eldad, of the far-right National Union party, said the initiative "serves as tremendous encouragement" to Palestinian militants.

"The prime minister has made our blood very cheap.... He bears undisputed responsibility for the wave of terror that has come upon us," Eldad said.

Backers of the withdrawal plan, including those in the left-leaning Labor Party, urged the Israeli leader not to be dissuaded by hard-line settlers. Labor lawmaker Ophir Pines said the attack showed the need for "swift and determined implementation" of Sharon's initiative.

Adding fuel to the arguments: One of the slain soldiers was from the Gaza settlement of Neve Dekalim, and his family buried him at the Jewish cemetery in the Gush Katif settlement bloc. The prospect of eventually removing settlers' graves from Gaza is one of the most inflammatory elements of the withdrawal debate.

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