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Israel Widens Offensive Against Palestinian Militants


Israel is widening its five-day-old offensive in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, aimed at halting Palestinian rocket attacks. The violence is harming efforts to revive the peace process.

Israeli aircraft fired a barrage of missiles into Gaza, damaging several buildings, destroying a bridge, and knocking out electricity to thousands of Palestinians. The army also fired artillery shells for the first time, despite a pledge by Islamic militants to halt rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

In a new phase of the campaign, Israeli troops closed down 15 Islamic charities in the West Bank linked to local mosques. The military said the offices distributed money to the families of suicide bombers from two militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Israel says the offensive is part of a tough new policy of deterrence, in the wake of its pullout from Gaza earlier this month. Government spokesman Ra'anan Gissin said it is a message to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen.

"If Abu Mazen wants to continue to survive and to continue to rule his people, he first has to rule the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. He has to dismantle the terrorist organizations," he said.

The army stepped up raids in the West Bank after Hamas kidnapped and killed a 50-year-old Israeli man. Hamas released a video of the blindfolded hostage, pleading for his life and urging Israel to free Palestinian prisoners.

The violence is threatening the seven-month-old Mideast cease-fire, known in Arabic as the "hudna."

"The collapse of the cessation of violence and the 'hudna' will not serve the purpose and the interest of any side," said Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had planned to meet with Mr. Abbas next week to discuss reviving the internationally-backed "road map" peace plan. But because of the surge in violence, the summit was postponed.