SDEROT, Israel – Palestinian militants rocketed this Israeli border town Tuesday during a visit by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), underscoring Israel's helplessness in stopping the crude projectiles launched from the Gaza Strip.
Five rockets hit Sderot (search), even though Israeli soldiers reoccupied parts of the northern Gaza Strip earlier in the day to prevent such barrages. One Sderot resident was hurt. Sharon, who was more than a mile from where the rockets struck, was unharmed.
In the Gaza Strip (search), Israeli tanks encircled the town of Beit Hanoun, home to 21,000 Palestinians. Bulldozers tore up the main road in the eighth major Israeli military operation there since the outbreak of fighting in 2000.
Troops advanced about 700 yards into town, meeting no armed resistance, only sporadic stone-throwing by teenagers, residents said. A local hospital said 17 of the youngsters were wounded by army fire, one critically.
The military operation in Gaza came in response to the deaths of a 3-year-old boy and a 49-year-old man Monday, the first Israelis to be killed by rockets from Gaza. Since 2002, militants have fired more than 200 rockets at Israeli targets, but most have missed.
Military officials and experts warned that the militant Hamas group, with the help of Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, has managed to increase the range and deadliness of the rockets.
A new threat from Gaza could complicate Sharon's plan to withdraw from the coastal strip by September 2005. More rocket attacks could undercut popular support for the plan.
Sharon visited Sderot, a working-class town two miles from Gaza, to try to reassure panicked residents. While he visited a community center, three rockets fell more than a mile away. It was not clear if the militants were aware of Sharon's presence.
The prime minister promised "wide-ranging actions to ensure that what happened here yesterday will not recur," but was met with skepticism.
"I want to ask you how it can be that a child goes to nursery school and doesn't come home again, how ?" Yitzhak Ohayon, the father of the toddler killed Monday, asked a grim-faced Sharon.
Wearing a black skullcap, Ohayon sat on the floor in a traditional Jewish sign of mourning. He held up a newspaper with the story on his son, Afik, filling the front page.
"This is the most terrible thing that could happen," replied Sharon. The prime minister lost one of his sons in a shooting accident when the boy was 12.
"There is no cure for this pain, which will follow you all your life," Sharon said.
In the Gaza Strip, Beit Hanoun resident Ramadan Shabat, 39, said he had stocked up on supplies after Monday's deadly attack on Sderot.
As he spoke by telephone, machine-gun fire could be heard in the background, and he said that at one point bullets hit one of his windows. He said bulldozers were digging up the street outside his home, and that a sewage pipe had been broken.
"The real war has started against Beit Hanoun people," he said. "There is nothing we can do except pray to God to save our lives and those of our families."
An army spokesman said he was unaware of any damage to property or infrastructure and that the aim of the operation was to stop the firing of missiles. A military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said army bulldozers built earthen ramparts on some roads to keep militants from bringing in rocket launchers in vehicles and to block their getaway routes.
Palestinians reported hearing loud explosions near tanks operating in the area, similar to the sound of roadside bombs that have ripped tanks apart in the past. The army said it was unaware of any such attacks.
In the last major raid in May 2003, troops flattened orchards, demolished 15 homes, knocked over garden walls, tore up streets and damaged the sewage, water and electricity systems. Thousands of trees have been uprooted on the outskirts of Beit Hanoun.
"I oppose those who are firing rockets, and I don't like violence at all," said Jaber Saeda, a 42-year-old farmer who said his greenhouses had been destroyed by Israel last year.
"But how can I convince my children and myself that the Israelis are serious about peace when I see them uprooting trees and destroying houses and killing our children?" he said.
During the operations in Gaza early Tuesday, five Palestinians were wounded by Israeli gunfire, Palestinian security sources said. The militant group Hamas said one of its members died accidentally while handling explosives. The Israeli army had no comment.
Elsewhere in Gaza, troops killed a 15-year-old boy in the Khan Younis refugee camp, Palestinian hospital and security sources said. Relatives said the boy had been on the roof of his house. The army said it fired at a suspicious figure on the roof of an abandoned building used by militants.
In the West Bank, meanwhile, an Israeli man was found shot dead in his truck. The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades claimed responsibility, saying it was avenging Israel's killing of its leader last weekend.