Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Ever since Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas took office two weeks ago, there has been an escalation in terrorist activity in the Gaza Strip, an Israeli army officer said on Thursday.
Four Palestinians were reported killed, including a 12-year-old boy, on Thursday during an Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, launched to prevent the firing of mortar shells and rockets at Israeli communities.
The operation, reportedly one of the largest in months, began just days before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Abbas are reportedly scheduled to meet for the first time since Abbas assumed his post on April 30.
More than two-dozen armored vehicles and Israeli troops backed by helicopters raided the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun before dawn on Thursday, witnesses said.
Israeli forces took control of strategic positions in the area from which Qassam rockets have been fired, the army said. During the operation, two explosive devices were activated and a grenade thrown at troops.
During exchanges of gunfire, 12-year-old Mohammed al-Za'anin, two Palestinian gunmen and a fourth Palestinian were killed, reports said.
Palestinians charged that al-Za'anin, who was wounded in the head, was left bleeding for hours. The army said it could not comment on the charge.
The troops also demolished the homes of four Hamas militants who had admitted being involved in the firing of Qassam rockets.
During the last two weeks, 43 mortar shells and 12 Qassam rockets have been fired from the Gaza Strip at Israeli targets. Ten of the rockets were aimed at the southern Israeli city of Sderot. Five explosive devices have also been activated and three anti-tank missiles fired.
Maj.-Gen. Doron Almog, the head of the southern command, said on Thursday that there had been an escalation in terrorist activity during the last two weeks and that the military operation in Beit Hanoun would continue for several days.
"In the coming days, we will remain in this area," Almog told reporters. "We are operating now and will continue to operate in the coming days in this territory in order to prevent, to thwart, to deter...the operation of firing of Qassam [rockets]."
Almog said he did not assume that the forces would be able to prevent the firing of rockets and mortars 100 percent but would improve Israel's ability to thwart the attacks.
According to Almog, PA security forces or the security personnel of Abbas or his security chief Mohammed Dahlan are not operating effectively yet to thwart terror attacks.
"If in the future there will be effective operations... we will see," Almog said.
Abbas has denounced Palestinian terrorism and has been charged with the task of ending it, which Israel says is a prerequisite if there is to be progress on the U.S.-sponsored "road map" to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestinians are demanding the Israel withdraw its forces from positions it has taken up in Palestinian areas over the last year.
Diplomatic sources confirmed on Thursday that there is a continuing effort to arrange a meeting between Sharon and Abbas before Sharon leaves for Washington early next week.
Media reports have said that the two leaders will meet Saturday evening, in the first official contacts of this level between the two sides in more than two years.
Sharon is due in Washington early this week for talks with President Bush on the "road map."
The Palestinians have accepted the document, which promises them provisional statehood by the end of the year but Israel has listed 15 reservations about it.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the cabinet on Wednesday that the "road map" as it is now is "bad for Israel." He said it was not in the country's security interests and would not be possible to implement as it is.
Mofaz said there is no indication that Abbas has begun to fight the terrorist organizations but he said there are signs that PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, whom the West had hoped would be sidelined by Abbas, is trying to scuttle the road map by promoting terrorism.
Thursday's Gaza violence occurred as Palestinians were marking what they call the Naqba - the catastrophe - when the State of Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948.
The following day, the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq invaded the fledgling state. Several hundred thousand Palestinians fled the fighting or were driven out and became refugees.
In a televised address, Arafat said that there would be, "No peace before the full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian and Arab lands to the line of June 1967."
Israel gained control of the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the 1967 Six-Day War.