Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israeli helicopters targeted two buildings in the Gaza Strip overnight following a massive explosion under an Israeli army post on the border between Israel and Egypt. The blast killed five Israeli soldiers and wounded five others.
Hamas and another group calling itself the Fatah Hawks claimed responsibility for what the army called "a well-coordinated attack."
A Palestinian militant giving his name as Abu Majad was quoted as saying that the attack was in retaliation for "the assassination" of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. Some Palestinians believe Arafat was poisoned, although doctors in the French hospital where he died ruled out that possibility.
Palestinians said they used one-and-a-half tons of explosives to collapse the Israeli post, killing three soldiers. The post was next to a shared Israeli-Palestinian checkpoint at the Rafah crossing, where Palestinians cross between Israel and Egypt. At the time of the blast, the checkpoint was closed.
Immediately following the explosion, Palestinians launched a barrage of mortar fire against the post, and two Palestinians stormed it, opening fire on soldiers. Two soldiers were killed and several others wounded in the exchanges of fire. The Palestinian gunmen also were killed.
During the rescue operation, Palestinian snipers and gunmen opened fire and activated another explosive device against the troops.
This was the worst attack since Arafat died last month. But military sources pointed out that that there has been little let-up in terrorist attempts to carry out attacks.
"This was another attempt by Hamas...to foil any sort of progress," a military source said.
Israel has promised to exercise restraint toward the Palestinians ahead of their presidential elections in January as long as the situation stays quiet.
The international community is hopeful that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward a permanent settlement could be resuscitated in the wake of Arafat's death.
But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman Dr. Ra'anan Gissin said that unless the PA makes a "decisive and sustained effort" to dismantle terrorist organizations, it would be impossible "to move toward normalization and toward political negotiations."
Following the attack, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at two buildings in Gaza City, which the army said had been used by terrorist organizations to manufacture weapons in the Gaza Strip.
Sharon has pledged to evacuate Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip by the end of next year, removing thousands of settlers as well as Israeli troops. But he has said the area will be evacuated only if it can be secured.
Israel has turned to Egypt to help prevent Palestinians from smuggling weapons through tunnels from the Sinai desert under the Israeli-Egyptian border into the Gaza Strip.
Hamas and other terror groups have vowed to keep up their terror attacks amid optimism that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations might be renewed under a new Palestinian leadership.
In other news at the weekend, Marwan Barghouti withdrew his candidacy for the president of the Palestinian Authority on Sunday. Barghouti, serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for involvement in terror activities, angered Fatah activists when he declared his candidacy from prison 10 days ago.
Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the top contender for the post of PLO chairman, apologized to Kuwait on Sunday for Palestinian support of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which prompted the first U.S.-led Gulf War in 1991.
Abbas is on a tour of the region, mending fences with Arab states that had been at odds with former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat before he died.
Abbas met with Syrian President Bashar Assad last week and announced new "coordination" between the two.
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