More than 30 people were reported injured Monday when missiles slammed into a Gaza City security compound and a prison housing jailed militants. As the bombing began, protesters took to the streets demanding the detainees be freed for their own protection.
On Sunday, 37 people were wounded, none seriously, in a similar attack.
The retaliatory measures come after two Palestinians with assault weapons opened fire at a pastry shop near the Israeli Army Southern Command in Beersheba, killing two female soldiers. A third Israeli soldier was critically injured.
One of the gunmen was immediately shot dead by other soldiers. The second gunman, wearing explosives on a belt, ran across a parking lot towards a school and was shot dead by police arriving at the scene.
Also on Sunday, the Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for firing a Qassam 2 rocket, which can travel at least five miles, at Israeli farm fields. No one was injured, but the attack marked the first time such rockets have been used in the current fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, which began more than 16 months ago.
Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the introduction of the Qassam 2 was an escalation that would not be tolerated.
“Israel has said many times that if these rockets were used, it would change the rules of the game,” he said.
Today’s air strikes in Gaza City reportedly injured three Palestinian journalists and a news photographer for The Rocky Mountain News of Denver.
Sunday’s strike blew out out windows of government offices and residential buildings in a wide area, according to witnesses.
Two employees in the office of Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East, were hurt by flying glass, a United Nations spokesman told reporters.
Roed-Larsen expressed outrage at the use of heavy bombs near civilian areas.
“Israel’s security needs will not be met by hitting civilian targets or by destroying the Palestinians’ ability to police and maintain order,” a statement from his office said.
The Israeli Army said its target was a headquarters of Force 17, an elite unit in the Palestinian security forces. An Israeli Army spokesman apologized for the injuries to United Nations employees, saying their building was not an intended target.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said the situation made certain areas unsafe.
“Escalation is gaining momentum,” he said. “Certainly because of the security problem alone we are obliged to take a series of measures, which are sometimes hurtful to innocent people.”
Sharon returns from White House meeting
Prime Minister Sharon called a meeting of his security aides Sunday to discuss possible responses to the rockets and shootings.
He reiterated his position that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat is directly responsible for recent suicide bombings and militant attacks.
“The terrorism is increasing, terrorism which Arafat is directly responsible for, and the Palestinian Authority is taking no steps against it,” Sharon said Sunday. “This will require us to take decisions in light of the serious deterioration.”
Sharon met with President Bush on Thursday, but failed to get Washington to cut ties with Arafat.
The Bush administration said it will continue to follow a Mideast policy laid out by Secretary of State Colin Powell that shies away from boycotting the Palestinian leader while the U.S. attempts to keep together a coalition against terror.
The coalition includes several Arab states who charge that the White House is pursuing a pro-Israel policy in the Middle East.
In an interview with the BBC, Arafat said Israel must negotiate with him because the Palestinians elected him as their representative.
The Israelis “have to deal with the Palestinian people, who elected Yasser Arafat and who will elect after Arafat any leader, any president,” Arafat said.
Last week, the White House announced that Vice President Dick Cheney will emerge from months of virtual isolation to tour the Mideast in mid-March.
The trip, which is said to include Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Britain, will focus on post-Afghanistan developments and the Bush administration’s war on global terrorism. Cheney will not meet with Arafat or go to Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza, according to the White House.