JENIN, West Bank – Israeli troops fired missiles at the Gaza Strip (search) and raided a West Bank town, killing two Islamic Jihad militants and arresting one of the group's top leaders in retaliation for a suicide bombing that killed five Israelis.
The attacks, which killed a total of seven Palestinians, came hours after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) declared a "broad and nonstop" offensive against the Palestinian militant group. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for Wednesday's bombing in the central Israeli town of Hadera, calling it revenge for Israeli's killing of one of its West Bank (search) leaders last week.
The escalating violence has all but dashed hopes for resumed peace efforts after Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and increased pressure on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to confront militants. Abbas has refused to crack down on armed groups such as Islamic Jihad, fearing civil war.
Israel launched its operation with four airstrikes in Gaza early Thursday, targeting open fields used by militants to fire rockets, the army said.
In the afternoon, about 35 jeeps, backed by Apache helicopters, entered Jenin and troops surrounded the home of Abdel Khalim Izzadin (search). After a brief standoff, Izzadin and three other men surrendered, witnesses said.
Later Thursday, Israel fired missiles at the Jebaliya refugee camp near Gaza City as people were returning home from evening prayers. Witnesses said the target was a white Subaru car.
Shadi Mohanna, the Islamic Jihad field commander for northern Gaza, was killed along with his assistant, Mohammed Ghazaineh, according to Islamic Jihad (search). An Associated Press reporter saw two charred bodies. Palestinian Health Ministry official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain said seven people were killed — the militants and five bystanders.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, "We want to condemn this attack and warn about the consequences of this escalation."
In a text message sent to AP, Islamic Jihad vowed retaliation: "This massacre will escalate the revenge and the action and reaction and God willing there will be a painful immediate response for tonight's crime."
Israel's airstrikes targeted northern Gaza, where militants have been firing some rockets at Israel. Since withdrawing from Gaza last month, Israel has pledged not to tolerate any attacks from Gaza. As a last resort, Israel could re-enter Gaza, and Israeli media reported that troops would also retake Palestinian towns and conduct house-to-house searches.
Sharon said the military operation was necessary because of Abbas' refusal to take action and that it would be impossible to resume peace talks until the Palestinians rein in the militants.
"Unfortunately the Palestinian Authority (search) has not taken any serious action to battle terrorism," Sharon said before meeting the visiting Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. "We will not accept under any circumstances a continuation of terrorism. Therefore our activities will be broad and nonstop until they halt terrorism."
"The state of Israel would very much have liked to move peace efforts forward," he added. "To my regret, as long as terror continues we shall not be able to move forward as we would have wished."
Israel, the United States and the international community had hoped the Gaza withdrawal would jump-start peace efforts. But the two sides have so far failed to capitalize on the opportunity, and negotiations on many key issues have deadlocked.
Wednesday's suicide attack embarrassed Abbas, who hours before the attack demanded that militant groups stop violating a cease-fire declared in February.
The small Islamic Jihad signed on to the truce last spring but has repeatedly flouted it by claiming the right to retaliate for perceived Israeli violations. It has carried out four suicide bombings inside Israel since the truce.
The much larger Hamas militant group, which plans to run in January parliamentary elections, has largely scaled back attacks since the truce. Islamic Jihad is not participating in the vote and has much less to lose by continuing to attack Israel.
Israeli officials accused archenemies Iran and Syria of assisting the attackers, noting that Islamic Jihad is funded by Tehran and headquartered in Damascus. "This infrastructure is murderous and we will try to deal with it and silence it," Amos Gilad, a senior Defense Ministry official, told Israel Radio.
The attack came hours after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad praised suicide bombings and said Israel should be "wiped off the map."
Sharon, during a meeting with the Russian foreign minister, called for Iran to be tossed out of the United Nations for the president's comments, which drew wide international condemnation.
"The prime minister said that a state which calls for the destruction of another people cannot be a member of the United Nations," according to a statement released by his office.
Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz approved the latest offensive in a series of overnight telephone calls, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
"Islamic Jihad has declared war on every Israeli civilian and of course we're 100 percent entitled to take the appropriate action to defend our civilians," Regev said.
"Ultimately, Israel still hopes the Palestinian Authority will follow through on their own commitments to disarm these groups and that will make the necessity for Israeli action superfluous."
Capt. Yael Hartmann, an army spokeswoman, said security services were bracing for more attacks by Islamic Jihad. As part of its response, Israel sealed off its crossings with Gaza and declared a complete closure on the West Bank.
The measure prevents laborers from entering Israel, keeps Palestinians from visiting relatives in Israeli prisons and blocks Palestinian goods from exports. The closure came just a day after similar restrictions, in effect for the monthlong Jewish holidays, had been lifted.
In Qabatiyeh, the Hadera suicide bomber's West Bank hometown, the army arrested the attacker's father overnight along with four other Islamic Jihad militants, Palestinian security officials said. The army confirmed the arrests, but declined to say whether the bomber's father had been detained.
The bomber, Hassan Abu Zeid, 20, attacked a food stand in Hadera's open-air market. Thirty people also were wounded; three were in critical condition Thursday.