The army’s latest incursion comes on the heels of a suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem last week that killed 11 Israelis.
Heavy exchanges of gunfire were reported in the Gaza Strip as tanks and armored vehicles, backed by helicopter gunships, moved into the town of Deir al-Balah early Tuesday and destroyed the home of a suspected Hamas militant, Mahmoud Abu Huli. At least four Palestinians were wounded in the clash and another 17 left homeless as a result of the destruction. Troops later withdrew, according to Reuters.
Israel confirmed the demolition of the house in Gaza, saying Abu Huli, who remains at large, was suspected of mortar attacks on Jewish settlers as well as ordering gunmen to attack Israeli soldiers.
In the West Bank, the Israeli army said it arrested 11 wanted members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a group linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, in addition to at least 25 other suspects during overnight raids in a refugee camp near Bethlehem and a village near Nablus.
Some 22 pounds of explosives and a mortar bomb were confiscated during the incursion, according to army officials.
In the West Bank village of Kufr Kalil, troops bulldozed the home of Adel Mansour, a fugitive member of Al-Aqsa wanted by Israel, Mansour’s family told the Associated Press.
In the wake of the incursions, Palestinian officials said that it was growing increasingly unlikely that Palestinian elections, considered a key measure of government reform, could be held as scheduled for Jan. 20, since officials have not begun preparations for the vote.
“We haven’t been able to register voters or train people for this huge process,” Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said, blaming Israel for limiting freedom of movement for Palestinians with checkpoints and forced curfews.
Meanwhile, the battle to become Israel’s next leader took a pointed turn Tuesday as Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of driving Israel to despair.
In two days, the right-wing Likud Party is scheduled to pick a nominee for the general election on Jan. 28 and Netanyahu, the hard-line former prime minister, is not wavering in his bid for the nomination despite trailing Sharon in opinion polls.
In ads plastered on buses, Netanyahu says that when he was prime minister from 1996 to 1999, there were only four Palestinian bombings, compared to the dozens that have rocked Israel over the past two years with Sharon at the helm.
“Despair is eating away at every segment of society. Whoever thinks that nothing can be done, that all we can do is hold on, won’t vote for me,” Netanyahu told the daily publication Yedioth Ahrononth. “I have solutions,” he added.
His proposals include recapturing Palestinian territory and installing troops along a boundary line between Israel and the Palestinians.
Netanyahu says he would agree to limited Palestinian self-rule but opposes the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, saying it could threaten Israel’s existence.
“My way is the traditional way of the Likud,” Netanyahu said in his comments. “This is an internal poll of Likud’s support for a Palestinian state. The decision will echo throughout the world.”