JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel locked down the West Bank and Gaza Strip yesterday ahead of its national election to keep out Palestinian attackers, after a large-scale military incursion into Gaza and warnings that Palestinians may try to disrupt the voting with violence.
About 26,500 police and soldiers were deploying to guard against Palestinian attacks during tomorrow’s voting, police spokesman Gil Kleiman said. There were general warnings of attacks by Palestinians over the next 48 hours, but no more than usual, he said.
However, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Israel’s Cabinet yesterday that there has been an increase in warnings about possible attacks by Palestinian militants during the election.
“The defense minister emphasized that Israel is in the midst of an `assault of terror’ in the run-up to the election, and the scope of the warnings and the attempts to carry out terror attacks is very high,” a Cabinet statement said.
Yesterday afternoon, Israel imposed a blanket closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, barring all Palestinians from entering Israel and confining most to their communities. Israel has enforced stringent travel bans on Palestinians since the outbreak of fighting, but yesterday’s restrictions, to be in effect until Wednesday, impeded movement even further.
The military said the Allenby Bridge between Jordan and the West Bank and the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt would remain open.
Palestinians drew a connection between the Israeli election and a large-scale Israeli incursion into Gaza City early yesterday in which 12 Palestinian gunmen were killed and 67 wounded. Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said it was part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s re-election campaign.
The Gaza City raid began shortly after 10 p.m. Saturday, and ended yesterday morning. After Israeli troops withdrew, about 30,000 Palestinians joined the funeral procession for the 12 gunmen killed in the fighting – the highest death toll in Gaza in five months. Those killed included members of the security forces and various Palestinian militias.
It was the deepest Israeli penetration into the Palestinian city of 300,000 in more than two years of fighting. The raid came in response to the firing of crude, short-range Qassam rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot in the southern Negev Desert, near Gaza, on Friday.
“The Israelis will pay a heavy price for every drop of blood shed last night,” Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas, told the crowd at the funeral. “Our battle will continue until we uproot this Zionist occupation from our holy land, no matter what the sacrifice.”
The Israeli military said its forces “raided dozens of buildings used as weapon-producing workshops,” destroying equipment. Also, soldiers blew up two houses belonging to militants.
However, four more Qassam rockets were fired at Israel yesterday, causing no damage or injuries.
In Cairo, where the Egyptian government has been trying to forge an agreement among Palestinian factions for an end to attacks against Israeli civilians, the Arab League issued a statement condemning the Israeli incursion and warning that failure of the international community to stop such actions “would increase the feelings of Arab anger and frustration.”
In Davos, Switzerland, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the world must work to install a Palestinian leadership that “will clamp down on terror,” but he also told Israel that the Palestinians must have a real state, “not a phony state that’s diced into a thousand different pieces,” an apparent reference to Sharon’s offer of a truncated, limited state some time in the future.
Russia said the Israeli incursion was cause for concern and the latest clashes only dim prospects for peace.
The bloody conflict with the Palestinians dominated the Israeli election campaign as it drew to a conclusion.
With voting set for tomorrow, a poll published yesterday indicated that Sharon’s Likud Party remains comfortably ahead, and will win 30 seats in the 120-member parliament, compared to 19 for the opposition Labor party. The Geocartographia survey among 1,007 voters also said the centrist Shinui party would win 13 seats. It had an error margin of 3.1 percentage points.
Earlier polls indicated that Labor could slip so far down that Shinui might overtake it. In the final evening of campaign commercials on Israeli TV stations, Labor candidate Amram Mitzna appealed to disaffected Labor voters, many driven to other parties by Labor’s 20-month stint in Sharon’s government.
“Those who believe there is still hope, who believe that it is possible to drive out the frustration, give me the power,” Mitzna pleaded, “I call on you, come home. Come back to the Labor Party.”
Many Labor supporters felt that their party, the pioneer in peace efforts with the Palestinians, became a fig leaf for Sharon’s ever-harsher military measures in response to Palestinian attacks. Mitzna countered with a pledge not to join another Sharon-led government and promoted a proposal of withdrawal from all of Gaza and most of the West Bank, unilaterally if no agreement is reached, but Labor continues to lag in the polls.