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Militant attack on Gaza crossing kills at least five

Friday, January 14, 2005

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Palestinian militants set off a large truck bomb as gunmen stormed an Israeli base at a vital Gaza crossing Thursday, killing five Israelis and wounding five others in an attack that defied peace efforts by new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

The assault, in which three Palestinians attackers were also killed, was by far the largest since Abbas won an election Sunday to succeed Yasser Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas has been trying to persuade militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad to agree to a cease-fire, but so far with no success.

The bombing came just hours after Hamas' West Bank leader -- known as a relative moderate within Hamas -- said it might consider an end to attacks against Israel. Hamas was one of three militant groups that claimed responsibility for the bombing.

The attack took place just before 11 p.m. at the Karni crossing, where all farm produce and other goods enter and leave the Gaza Strip.

The militants entered the crossing in a bomb-laden truck minutes before it was to close, the military said. They blew a hole in the security wall between the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the crossing, and at least two gunmen charged through and attacked the Israelis.

One report said they blew themselves up, but another said they opened fire and were killed by Israeli soldiers.

About 90 minutes after the attack, Israeli helicopters fired three missiles early today at a building in Deir el-Balah in central Gaza used by Islamic Jihad, the Israeli military and Palestinian security officials said. One person was slightly wounded.

Israel intends to pull out of Gaza in the summer. Militant groups have been stepping up their attacks in recent months in an attempt to show that they are forcing the Israelis out.

Five Israelis were killed in Thursday's attack, the Israeli military said. Israeli hospital officials said they were treating three seriously wounded people and two slightly wounded.

On the Palestinian side, a statement to The Associated Press from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, affiliated with Abbas' Fatah faction, said two fighters were killed "in a martyrdom operation" near the Karni crossing. Later, a militant faction said a third gunman was killed while trying to ambush rescue workers.

A spokesman for another group, the Popular Resistance Committees, said militants filmed the attack. Hamas also claimed responsibility in the joint operation.

Just hours earlier, the top Hamas official in the West Bank, Sheik Hassan Yousef, told the AP that Hamas is open to a truce with Israel and is no longer bent on destroying the Jewish state, recognizing that Palestinians are weary after four years of conflict.

The comments went a step beyond previous Hamas statements indicating it might accept Israel as a temporary presence only.

Yousef, who is among Hamas' founding members, is known as a relative moderate within the group, and other leaders couldn't immediately be reached for reaction. The group's main leaders are based in Syria and Lebanon, and they usually stick to the Islamic movement's uncompromising line against Israel.

Yousef said the group is reconsidering its violent tactics, though a final decision hasn't been made.

The official ideology of Hamas does not recognize a place for a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East. In the past, the furthest Hamas leaders have gone is to say they would accept a "temporary" Palestinian state in only the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the framework of a long-term cease-fire with Israel -- but that Hamas would not make peace with the Jewish state and believes the Palestinians have the right to all Israeli land.

Yousef said Hamas understands that the Palestinian people are weary after more than four years of fighting. "We read the regional and the international reality and the changes that have taken place based on this reality, and we take positions according to these changes," Yousef said.

"Hamas doesn't want to eliminate Israel. Hamas is a realistic political movement," he said. "There is a thing called Jews and a thing called Israel and we deal with this reality."

Despite Yousef's comments on Thursday to The Associated Press, Israelis were skeptical.

"We're going to have to see what the reaction is. This guy has a reputation for piping off," cautioned Mark Heller, an analyst at the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "I don't think he was speaking for the (Hamas) movement."

A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel would deal only with Abbas' Palestinian Authority.

Israel insists that Abbas dismantle the militants groups, according to the terms of the stillborn "road map" peace plan, backed by the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Instead of cracking down, Abbas has been trying to prod the Islamic militants into a truce. In his brief tenure as prime minister in 2003, Abbas succeeded in forging a cease-fire to halt attacks against Israel, but it collapsed after a few weeks amid Palestinian bombings and Israeli reprisals.

On Wednesday, Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas leader in Gaza, said Hamas has no plans to disarm, and Abbas has no authority to order an end to attacks on Israel.


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