Sharon - Israeli Army Raids
To Continue Despite US Rebuke


JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said army raids into the Gaza Strip would go on, a day after a bloody incursion killed 14 Palestinians and drew strong international rebukes, including from Israel's top ally Washington.
The right-wing leader, forced to bow to US pressure last month to end his siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's base, was in a defiant mood despite Washington's saying it was "deeply troubled" by Monday's storming of the Gaza town of Khan Yunis.
"The complicated operation we carried out (Monday) was a success. It was an important one and there will be other anti-terrorist operations of this sort in the Gaza Strip," Sharon told army radio.
His comments appeared to fly in the face of US attempts to calm the region ahead of expected strikes against Baghdad, as Israel warned that while it respected Washington's agenda, it had its own security priorities.
An official from Sharon's office insisted that despite Washington's call for restraint, the US administration of President George W. Bush "recognises Israel's right to defend itself against terrorism."
"The Israeli army will continue its operations if the Palestinian Authority does not decide to prevent terrorists from carrying out attacks," he said.
"If we have no other option, we will do the work ourselves in order to guarantee the security of Israeli civilians," the official said.
Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships stormed into Khan Yunis in an operation the army said was aimed at rooting out militants from the Islamic group Hamas, who had fired mortars at nearby Jewish settlements.
The raid and clashes which dragged on after the army pulled back to the settlements cost the lives of 14 people, eight of them when a helicopter fired a rocket at a group near a mosque.
Israel said most of those killed were militants, while the Palestinians said only four of them were armed, including two police officers. All four armed men were killed in the rocket strike, they said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: "We're deeply troubled by the reports of Israeli actions in Gaza over the weekend that resulted in the deaths and wounding of many Palestinian civilians".
"Israeli operations were undertaken in crowded civilian areas and involved firing on a medical facility," he said.
Israel, which reoccupied most of the West Bank in June and has been scouring the region for suspected militants ever since, keeping hundreds of thousands of Palestinian under regular curfew, has stepped up raids on the Gaza Strip in recent weeks.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat called the Israeli operation an "ugly massacre which is part of preparations to reoccupy the Gaza Strip".
However Israeli analysts say it is unlikely the army will undertake a full reoccupation of the narrow coastal strip, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with more than a million people, many of them in crammed into massive refugee camps.
It is also a stronghold of die-hard Islamist factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
As well as being risky militarily, it would anger Israel's main ally Washington and put it under huge pressure.
Analysts say it is far more likely the army will continue the frequent raids for a "psychological" effect, showing militants they have nowhere to hide, rather than for a larger military goal, given that most Palestinian raids have been launched out of the West Bank.
Israel was bracing for renewed attacks from the Palestinian hardliners after vows to strike back for the raid, although Israeli security officials say they have largely hobbled the Palestinian militant networks which for two years have launched suicide bombers and gunmen into Israeli cities.
And the Palestinian security forces were still searching Tuesday for a renegade Hamas operative who, together with 20 of his men, abducted and murdered a Gaza police chief, in apparent revenge for the killing of two Islamists a year ago in anti-US riots which the police tried to suppress.
In gunbattles after the murder, four Hamas supporters shot as police tracked down Imad Aqel, the local leader who carried out the hit.
Tensions appeared to have defused on the northern border with Lebanon, as Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer said Washington had asked Israel to delay any action against Beirut as it prepares a compromise to the countries' heated water dispute that could spill over into war.
US experts will present a compromise solution within days that would put "a limitation on the water quantities that Lebanon could pump" from the Wazzani river in southern Lebanon, a key sources of water for the Jewish state.
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