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Israeli Helicopter Attacks Target 2 Islamic Jihad Leaders - 2004-05-15


Israel launched missile strikes Saturday against two leaders of the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, in apparent retaliation for the killing of 13 soldiers this week. Both leaders escaped without injury, and their supporters vowed to launch revenge attacks.

Israeli military helicopters fired four missiles early Saturday at a building housing the offices in Gaza City of Mohammed al-Hindi, the top leader of the Islamic Jihad in the area.

He safely fled before the attack, and his supporters vowed to launch what they called an earthquake of revenge attacks against Israelis.

His organization, which is listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, frequently carries out suicide bombings and other terror attacks against Israelis, and claimed responsibility for the killing of five Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

All five died when their armored vehicle was hit by an explosion, as it traveled along the so-called Philadelphia route, near Gaza's southern border with Egypt.

Just hours after the first Israeli operation on Saturday, Israeli military helicopters fired missiles at the home of Mohammed Sheik Khalil, a leader of the Islamic Jihad's military wing, in the southern Gaza Strip.

Palestinian residents said he was not at home at the time of the attack, and escaped injury.

Israeli troops in southern Gaza have also been demolishing Palestinian buildings, which the army says are being used as cover to launch attacks against soldiers, and to conceal the end points of tunnels used to smuggle weapons and explosives from Egypt.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister for Negotiations Saeb Erekat appealed to the United States to put pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to halt the demolitions and military operations in Gaza.

Mr. Erekat told VOA the Israeli army operations contradict Mr. Sharon's statements that he wants to withdraw Israeli soldiers from the Gaza Strip.

"I think Mr. Sharon is doing on the ground precisely the opposite," he said. "He is engaging in Gaza. He is maintaining the occupation by demolishing the hundreds of homes, and [that is] resulting in a major human catastrophe."

Mr. Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, says Israel does want to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

At the same time, Mr. Gissin told VOA, Israel has to stop the flow of arms and explosives through a network of tunnels into Gaza from Egypt.

"The major lifeline of Islamic Jihad and Hamas goes through this Philadelphia route underneath there," he said. "And we - if we didn't stop it, then we would have had hundreds of Katyusha rockets and mortar fires launched against Israeli towns and villages across the border. "

Mr. Gissin also defended the demolition of the buildings in the area, saying such measures are necessary, as long as Israeli forces in southern Gaza continue to come under attack.

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