Israeli military fire barrage of artillery and missiles at Gaza Strip

The Israeli military on Tuesday fired a barrage of artillery and missiles at the Gaza Strip, hitting two offices of the militant Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and a bridge the army said was used by militants to reach areas where they fire rockets. Hours later, about two dozen armed Al Aqsa militants took over the governor's office and two other government buildings in northern Gaza, the latest outbreak of lawlessness that has undermined the rule of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel's pre-dawn aerial strikes were part of the army's attempt to halt rocket fire on Israeli towns bordering Gaza. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has approved a buffer zone in northern Gaza, although the army said it has not yet implemented the plan. Enforcement, including firing at anyone who enters the area, is not likely to begin in the coming 12 hours, the army said.

The army has been destroying roads and other installations used by militants to get to areas that put Israeli towns within range of their highly inaccurate, homemade rockets. The bridge destroyed Tuesday has been targeted before.

Since Israel's withdrawal this summer from the Gaza Strip, more Israeli towns, including the city of Ashkelon, have come into rocket range. Earlier this month, a rocket landed near Ashkelon's power plant and a fuel depot, alarming Israelis.

The offices of Al Aqsa, a group with links to the ruling Fatah party, were targeted because militants used them to meet, plan and recruit, the army said. But Palestinians said the offices, empty during the airstrike, were used for social and educational purposes.

The airstrike partially destroyed the buildings, leaving a big hole in the outer walls, shattering windows and burning furniture. One missile was fired into each building, Palestinian witnesses said. Israel says Abbas has failed to act against the militants and halt their rocket fire, forcing the army to deal with the problem itself. Abbas, who reached a ceasefire deal with the militants last March, has preferred persuasion over coercion, fearing a crackdown could lead to civil war. He also says that his security forces, destroyed during five years of fighting with Israel, do not have the power or the means to take on the militants.

But ordinary Palestinians yearn for law and order, as chaos reigns in Gaza and the West Bank.

On Tuesday, gunmen took over the governor's office, the Education Ministry and a religious court near the town of Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, the latest incident in a growing trend of gunmen using threats and violence to demand jobs.

They gunmen stormed the buildings armed with hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, rocket launchers and automatic rifles. Police stationed in a building next door watched the gunmen enter, witnesses said, and did nothing.

Later, security forces surrounded the governor's office and Fatah officials, mediating by phone, tried to persuade the gunmen to leave. Dozens of children from a nearby school milled around watching the action, while two Israeli helicopter gunships hovered overhead. Police tried to set up roadblocks and keep the crowds away, reports the AP. I.L.

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