Israeli Forces Raid Gaza Town

Israeli forces raided the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis (search) early Wednesday, firing a missile from a helicopter, as military activity continued alongside preparations for an Israeli pullout.

Palestinian hospital officials said 12 people were wounded in the missile strike, three critically.

Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the operation was "against the terrorist infrastructure," and a helicopter fired a missile at an open area to deter gunmen. The army said troops destroyed 13 abandoned structures before withdrawing just after dawn.

Israel often sends troops into Gaza towns, cities and refugee camps, targeting militants and destroying structures they say gunmen use for cover.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) is promoting a plan he calls "unilateral disengagement," pulling all Israeli soldiers and settlers out of the Gaza Strip by late next year, as well as removing four small West Bank (search) settlements.

In the months since he announced the plan, Palestinian groups have been jockeying for position to take power when the Israelis leave. Israel refuses to negotiate with the Palestinian leadership, charging that it is tainted by terrorism, leaving a potential power vacuum.

Egypt, warning of chaos, has offered to train Palestinian security forces and has urged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to restructure the forces.

On Tuesday, Palestinian legislators pressing Arafat for reforms came away disappointed from a meeting with the veteran leader.

Arafat's one-man rule has long troubled foreign critics, and corruption and disarray inside his Palestinian Authority are seen as stumbling blocks to Mideast peace. However, Palestinians point out that Arafat is the most recognizable symbol of their national cause, and even his harshest critics at home concede there's no one else with his stature in the Palestinian leadership.

Rare acknowledgment came Tuesday from Secretary of State Colin Powell. Though the U.S. government, like Israel, refuses to deal with Arafat, Powell told a group of foreign youths visiting Washington that Arafat "occupies a unique place in the minds of hearts of his people."

Powell added, "We have been disappointed by his actions over the years," and called on him to give power to his prime minister.

In a nod to his detractors, officials said Arafat offered Cabinet posts to two of his main critics, Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan and fellow Gaza Samir Mashrawi, a leader in Arafat's Fatah movement.

Arafat has ruled by creating many competing security forces and playing them off against each other, while paying the salaries of tens of thousands of security officers and public workers in a bloated bureaucracy.

Arafat also personally controls finances, appointments and most aspects of domestic and foreign policy. However, four years of devastating conflict with Israel, with thousands of casualties and economic ruin, have brought increased criticism of the 75-year-old leader.

In recent weeks, Palestinian reformers have also gone public with their criticism, breaking with their practice of grumbling in private while presenting a united front behind Arafat in public. Parliament set up a 14-member committee to investigate the government crisis and issue a report on reform.

Legislators met twice with Arafat in recent days, demanding that he put his reform promises in writing, but they said Tuesday that he remained evasive. Arafat handed the team a three-page letter, but his only concession was a guarantee that the prime minister could appoint Cabinet ministers, participants said.

"President Arafat's letter was not encouraging," said lawmaker Jamal Shati.

Arafat also avoided a clear answer on security reform, participants said on condition of anonymity.

Abbas Zaki, who heads the parliamentary committee, said legislators would try to hold one more meeting with Arafat, and would issue their final report next week.