Middle East

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The Israeli military has created a buffer zone in the northern part of Gaza. The purpose is to keep Palestinian Qassam rocket launchers farther away from southern Israel. The rockets have been landing closer to towns in recent weeks. Late today a Palestinian who ventured into the new buffer zone was wounded by Israeli artillery fire. Israeli troops will not be used to enforce the new restrictions, but Palestinians claim that these restrictions are, in effect, a reoccupation of parts of Gaza, three and a half months after Israel withdrew from the area. NPR's Linda Gradstein has the story.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Israeli aircraft today dropped leaflets warning Gazans not to enter a three-mile buffer zone on their side of the border with Israel. The leaflet said anyone found in the buffer zone, which includes the ruins of three former Jewish settlements, will be fired on after 6 PM local time. Israeli commanders also met with Palestinian Authority security officials and gave them maps showing the zone where Palestinians are not allowed to enter. Israeli military officials say there are no Palestinians living in this area and civilians have no reason to go there. They say that since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza four months ago, the area has become a launching pad for Qassam rockets.

An army spokesman said more than 200 Qassams have been fired at southern Israel since the Israeli pullback. Last week a rocket landed next to a nursery school, and several have landed on the outskirts of the town of Ashkelon, which also has Israel's main power plant. Likud Knesset member Yuval Shteinitz, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, is known as a hard-liner. He says the buffer zone is unlikely to stop the rocket fire.

Mr. YUVAL SHTEINITZ (Likud Knesset Member): I think that the only things that might do is a massive ground operation in Gaza, not in order to prevent Qassam shooting currently, but in order to uproot the terrorist infrastructure and to destroy the Qassam industry.

GRADSTEIN: Opposition leader Yosef Lapid of the liberal Shinui Party says he also has doubts.

Mr. YOSEF LAPID (Shinui Party): I don't know whether it's going to help. It's a desperate attempt to save the peace on the Gaza territory after our withdrawal. And if the international pressure on the Palestinians doesn't help, then we have to do something about it, and this is only a first step.

GRADSTEIN: Israel's defense minister says Israel has no intention of sending ground forces back into Gaza and can stop the rocket fire using other means. Matthew Guttman, who covers Palestinian affairs for the Jerusalem Post newspaper, says the ongoing Qassam rocket fire is intended as a challenge to the ruling Palestinian Authority, which is trying to maintain a cease-fire with Israel.

Mr. MATTHEW GUTTMAN (Jerusalem Post): I think it's a lot about politics. I think that Palestinians understand--or at least the rocket launchers understand that it has little effect; most of the rockets land in empty fields; they're extraordinarily inaccurate. And they have actually--and I've known this from al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, militants who I've talked to myself--that more people are actually injured firing the rockets than those who the rockets hit.

GRADSTEIN: Most of the rocket fire has come from the Islamic Jihad. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas today urged Islamic Jihad to end the rocket fire, saying it contradicts Palestinian interests. But a spokesman for Islamic Jihad said the group refuses to end what it called its `resistance.'

The new Israeli buffer zone comes amid ongoing chaos in Gaza. Gunmen today took over an election office in Gaza and traded fire with Palestinian policemen. One policeman was wounded. At the same time, rival wings of the ruling Fatah movement today presented a joint list of candidates for next month's parliamentary elections, hoping to end a split in the movement. Some in Fatah have called on Abbas to postpone the elections, but Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat today said they will be held as scheduled. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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