JERUSALEM – An overnight raid on the main Palestinian security compound in Gaza turned up anti-tank missiles, grenades and equipment to make other weapons, proving Palestinian security forces were supplying arms to militant groups, the Israeli army said Monday.
The three-hour raid left the Palestinian Preventive Security force complex in ruins. Palestinians denied the Israeli charges, saying the base was evacuated a year ago and has stood empty since.
Palestinians have pointed to raids like this when rebutting Israeli charges that Palestinian security is not doing enough to stop attacks by militants, saying that Israel itself is responsible for decimating the official forces.
Late Monday, Israeli forces struck again, with helicopters and tanks targeting a building in a sparsely-populated part of Gaza City. Witnesses and security officials said helicopters and tanks fired machine guns and shells. There were no casualties. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
The raids came as Israel's dovish Labor Party, trailing badly in polls ahead of a Jan. 28 general election, prepared to vote Tuesday in a primary to choose a leader.
Also Monday, an Israeli woman was shot and killed by a Palestinian gunman near the West Bank settlement of Rimmonim, northeast of Jerusalem, the military and hospital officials said.
In the Gaza strike, Israeli helicopters and tanks fired on the Palestinian complex for the first time in the current conflict, demolishing several of the 11 buildings in the compound. No serious injuries were reported.
Troops found dozens of mortar shells and grenades, three rocket propelled grenades, several anti-tank missiles and a Palestinian-manufactured Qassam missile, along with welding equipment and intelligence materials, Brig. Gen. Israel Ziv said.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the raid showed the "tight connection between the security forces of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian terror groups."
Ziv said Israeli forces had decided to strike the complex following the arrest of a top official, Yusuf Mukdad, on suspicion of planning attacks. "It became clear that they produced a large amount of weaponry and gave them to Islamic Jihad and Hamas and others," Ziv said.
Rashid Abu Shabak, head of preventive security in Gaza, toured the demolished compound Monday and denied it was a weapons factory.
"Every Palestinian security (compound) has its own garage to fix cars and if (they) consider this garage a factory to produce weapons, this is nothing new," he said. "Last night's aggression was not only against my headquarters, but against all the Palestinian people and against the peace process."
Gaza has so far been spared the large-scale military operations Israel has conducted in much of the West Bank, where forces have taken over Palestinian population centers in retaliation for terror attacks. But Israeli leaders have said militant groups operate unfettered in Gaza, and the Israeli military would confront them at some point.
Israel, meanwhile, considered a response to an ambush Friday in the West Bank city of Hebron in which gunmen killed 12 soldiers and security guards after they escorted Jewish worshippers home to their settlement.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was reportedly considering linking a line of Jewish enclaves in the city together with the settlement, Kiryat Arba — a move that could mean uprooting many Palestinians. The area is in a part of Hebron already under Israeli security control.
However, other government officials spoke only of beefing up the troop presence in Hebron to provide more security to the 450 Israeli settlers who live in the tense city alongside 130,000 Palestinians.
The United States has asked Syria to close the offices of the Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the Hebron attack, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said. According to a statement, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer informed Israel of the request.
Elsewhere, a group of Palestinians said they were blocked from traveling to Kibbutz Metzer, a communal farm in northern Israel, to pay condolences to residents following a Nov. 10 attack that left five people dead, including a mother and her two young sons.
"They prevented our people from shaking hands with those who suffered from the terrible situation on the other side," Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said after he met with the Palestinian delegation.
Ophir Chacham, an Israeli military official, said no decision had been made about whether to allow the group to pass.
The attack by the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade — linked to Arafat's Fatah movement — has embarrassed the Palestinian leader. Both he and Fatah have denounced it, saying it was carried out by rogue elements.