Surge of Israeli-Palestinian violence strains truce
GAZA - Israel launched an air strike against Gaza militants preparing to shell Jewish settlements on Wednesday in what the Islamic Hamas group said was an attempt to avenge the death of one of its fighters.
The surge of violence put strain on an already tenuous truce and could complicate Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate Gaza. A new poll showed Israeli public support for a pullout has slipped, though a clear majority still favors it.
It was the worst day of fighting in the Gaza Strip since the Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire took hold in February, and began with the pre-dawn death of a Hamas gunman along the border with Egypt.
Another militant was seriously wounded in the Israeli missile strike. The Israeli army said he was part of a squad that had been preparing to fire rockets or mortars into a Jewish settlement.
It was the first Israeli air attack against Gaza militants since Hamas and other armed factions agreed to a ceasefire after a Feb. 8 summit between Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declaring an end to four years of hostilities.
The circumstances of the gunman's death near the border were disputed. Hamas said he was killed during a patrol when a grenade or explosive device was launched by soldiers.
The Israeli army said its forces could not have been behind his death because they did not fire explosive devices during a brief exchange with gunmen. The army said troops had come under attack from automatic gunfire and anti-tank rockets.
An army spokesman suggested a bomb the gunman was trying to plant may have detonated prematurely.
Hamas fired mortar bombs and rockets against settlements in retaliation. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Hamas also issued a statement warning Sharon that "the security you are enjoying these days will not last long if aggression continues against our people."
Hamas, sworn to Israel's destruction, was the main group behind a campaign of suicide bombings against Israelis during the Palestinian uprising, but has pledged to refrain from attacks for now.
DIP IN ISRAELI SUPPORT FOR PULLOUT
Israel plans to withdraw from Gaza settlements in mid-August under what Sharon has billed as a way of "disengaging" from a point of conflict. Palestinian militants see the pullback from land captured in the 1967 Middle East war as a victory.
Far-right Israeli opponents of Sharon's plan have cited continuing violence as evidence that any withdrawal from occupied land would be a reward to militants.
A survey conducted by Tel Aviv University at the beginning of May pointed to a steady erosion of a previous two-thirds majority for what will be Israel's first removal of settlements from land Palestinians want for a state.
It found that 56 percent of Israeli Jews back the planned withdrawal, down from 59 percent in April and 62 percent in February.
Another 38 percent were opposed -- up from 36 percent last month and 29 percent three months ago -- while the remaining 6 percent were undecided on the plan to evacuate 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank.
The researchers attributed the decline in support to growing concern that the withdrawal would hurt Israeli security -- a view contradicting Sharon's message that it would make the Jewish state more secure.
Researchers cited a "widespread assessment that ... chaos will prevail in the Gaza Strip."
"A majority believes that after the departure of Israeli forces from Gaza, attacks against Israel from the area such as Qassam rocket fire, will intensify," they said in a statement.
Palestinians welcome any withdrawal but many fear Sharon is trying to trade
the coastal strip for a tighter grip on the West Bank, where the vast majority
of Israel's 240,000 settlers live.