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Israel Warns of Gaza Invasion over Rocket Fire

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Israel has massed tanks and troops on the border with the Gaza Strip and threatened to invade if Palestinian militants continue their attacks. There was more rocket and mortar fire from the militants today, salvos that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has vowed to do his utmost to stop. NPR's Linda Gradstein has more from Jerusalem.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

After a weekend of violence and increasing Israeli-Palestinian tensions, officials on both sides say they're working to calm the situation and save a crumbling five-month-old cease-fire. Israeli government sources say that despite the massing of Israeli tanks and troops on the border with Gaza, Israel will not launch a large-scale military incursion into Gaza unless more Israeli civilians are killed by Palestinian rocket and mortar fire.

There was a barrage of fire over the weekend and six Israelis were wounded, two seriously yesterday. Today Palestinians fired at least two Qassam rockets at southern Israel and at least five mortar shells at Jewish settlements. There were no casualties or damage.

Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin says the mortar and rocket fire must end before Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza, and he demands that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas try harder.

Mr. RAANAN GISSIN (Israeli Government Spokesman): I don't think under the very excruciating, painful situation that Israel finds itself today that the people of Israel, which are going to support these disengagement plans, are going to tolerate doing this very painful act under fire or under the threat of terrorism. Therefore, we will take care of the terrorists and we will use whatever means is necessary to do it if the Palestinian Authority fail to do that.

GRADSTEIN: Palestinian officials say they are trying. Abbas traveled to Gaza to meet with leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and urged them to return to the cease-fire. Palestinian analysts say Hamas is willing to do that if Israel stops what it calls targeted killings and Palestinians call assassinations. Since Friday, Israel has killed eight Hamas militants in air strikes and a shooting.

Speaking to reporters, Abbas vowed yesterday to do, quote, "all we can to prevent further attacks, regardless of the price." But he also sharply criticized Israel for its attacks on Hamas. Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat says both sides must work to defuse the situation.

Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Palestinian Cabinet Minister): I'm afraid to say that the Israeli incursion, assassination, missiles and so on is undermining these efforts. It's also undermining the efforts to have a disengagement from Gaza peacefully and smoothly, and it's undermining all sorts of other peace process.

GRADSTEIN: Later today, tens of thousands of Israeli opponents to the withdrawal are planning a march toward the Jewish settlements in Gaza. The march is being organized by leaders of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. They had called for many of the protesters to move into the settlements and stay there to resist the upcoming withdrawal. Last week, Israel declared the settlements a closed military zone, meaning non-residents are not allowed to enter. Israel spokesman Gissin says there will be mass arrests if the settlers go ahead.

Mr. GISSIN: The minute there are indications that a march or whatever is going to end up with violence against our forces with rabbis and spiritual leaders calling for outright, I would say, rebellion and sedition, that is something that no democracy in the world can tolerate, and in the same manner that we are going to display zero tolerance towards terrorism, we will display also zero tolerance towards disobedience of this sort.

GRADSTEIN: Police said protesters can hold a demonstration later today, but anyone who tries to march toward the Gaza settlements will be arrested. More than 10,000 police and soldiers are being deployed to make sure the protesters don't get into Gaza. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Gradstein
Linda Gradstein has been the Israel correspondent for NPR since 1990. She is a member of the team that received the Overseas Press Club award for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the team that received Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her coverage of the Gulf War. Linda spent 1998-9 as a Knight Journalist Fellow at Stanford University.