Israeli air raids struck buildings and roads in Gaza Strip

Israeli air raids struck buildings and roads in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday with the army poised to implement a security zone in the Palestinian territory intended to thwart militant rocket attacks. Army helicopters fired missiles, heavily damaging offices connected to the ruling Fatah movement and roads in the northern part of the territory.

The latest air assault came just hours after Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered the army to begin assembling a security zone in northern Gaza that Palestinians will be barred from entering. Helicopter rockets slammed into the offices of Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas's party at the northern town of Beit Lahiya, causing serious damage but no injuries, Gaza security sources said.

The army said the buildings in Beit Lahiya were used by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed offshoot of Fatah. Helicopters also raided roads and a bridge used to access sites from where rockets are fired, the army added. 'These are used by terror organizations to reach the launching grounds from which terrorists fire projectile rockets at Israel,' it said.

'The objective of targeting these routes is to prevent the passage of terrorists to the rocket launching grounds, and to disrupt the repeated attempts to fire projectile rockets at Israeli targets.' Al-Aqsa claimed responsibility for firing rockets into southern Israel on Monday, one of which landed near a nursery school but none of which caused any damage or injuries. Israel had threatened a major retaliation to repeated rocket attacks, three months after withdrawing all Jewish settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip following a 38-year occupation.

After months of talk about setting up a 'security strip' as a buffer zone to protect Israel against militant attacks, Mofaz late Monday ordered the army to begin implementing the precaution zone in northern Gaza. The decision would put a 'limitation' on Palestinians circulating in northern Gaza, a defence ministry source said.

Palestinian political and militant leaders have rejected the plan outright. An Israeli military told AFP that said movement on the security zone could come in the 'next few days', with talks still underway to determine its size and logistics.

'In terms of exactly what this zone or strip will be is still being decided upon' in talks within the army and defence ministry, the source said. 'Nothing has changed so far at the ground level. There hasn't been an operational order given to the ground forces to redeploy or change anything.'

After a security meeting on Thursday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the army to establish the no-man's land. Any Palestinian straying into the zone could be shot by troops from across the border. Local media had reported that the army were awaiting an improvement in the weather before starting to enforce the area, albeit without reoccupying the territory iwth ground troops.

Israeli television said that helicopters would play a key role in enforcing the 'sterile' zone, largely to envelop former Jewish settlements. Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei has 'categorically rejected' the plans and warned against 'the consequences' of the security buffer zone, reports Forbes. I.L.

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