Israeli shells enforce Gaza 'no-go' zone

Israeli artillery pounded northern Gaza in a new, aggressive policy to halt Palestinian rockets by threatening to shoot anyone who approached the border.

The first barrage, after sundown yesterday, marked the beginning of “Blue Skies”, promising to be the biggest military operation since Israel pulled out of Gaza in the summer.

The centrepiece is a “no-go zone” encompassing the settlements Israel evacuated and destroyed in northern Gaza. Analysts doubted, however, that Israel would use ground troops.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas appeared caught in the middle, denouncing the rocket fire but also condemning the Israeli response. Unchecked chaos in Gaza, with Abbas’ inability to control the militants, has undermined his campaign to bring order to the territory.

That could weaken Abbas’ appeal in Palestinian parliamentary elections next month, where the Islamic Hamas is mounting a stiff challenge.

Several hours before beginning the bombardment, the Israelis dropped leaflets in Gaza warning residents that presence in the area “puts your life in danger”.

Two Palestinians were wounded in the first hours of the operation, Palestinian doctors said.

There are no Palestinian villages in the zone, which is mostly farmland. The Palestinian interior ministry said the no-go zone was about three and a half miles long and between one and one and a half miles deep.

Palestinian militants have been taking advantage of the absence of the settlements to approach the border and fire their homemade rockets, bringing more of Israel into range – including the outskirts of the city of Ashkelon.

Over the last 10 days, two rockets have exploded in an industrial area south of the city, where there are sensitive installations such as a power plant and a fuel depot. Israel vowed to stop the attacks.

Defiant militants fired two rockets at Israel just before the barrage began a few minutes after 6pm local time. No one was hurt.

“We are definitely stepping up the level in our response,” said army spokeswoman Maj Avital Leibowich. “We can’t allow the situation to carry on like this. We can’t endanger the lives of our people.”

She said more than 200 rockets have been fired since the pullout.

Since the summer pullout, Israel has often fired shells at Gaza in response to rocket attacks, but not as part of a co-ordinated operation.

Israel has said it needed to take action because Abbas’ security forces were unwilling or unable to stop the rocket attacks.

Yesterday Abbas’ ruling Fatah Party presented a new list of candidates for the January 25 election, ending a rift between veteran Fatah figures and younger leaders, presenting a united front against Hamas.

But Fatah-affiliated gunmen in Gaza staged violent protests to demand their own spots on the list of candidates, briefly seizing election offices and exchanging gunfire with police.

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