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Israel launches helicopter gun ship strikes in Gaza after bus attack
Attack follows school bus bombing that killed 2 Jewish settlers
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (CNN) -- At least 20 people, including several children, were wounded early Monday evening when Israeli helicopter gun ships fired at least 24 missiles on Palestinian targets in Gaza City, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority said.
Israel's Cabinet approved the attacks as a "measured response" in retaliation for an attack earlier in the day in Gaza on a school bus that killed two Jewish settlers and injured nine people, including five children.
Three obscure groups claimed responsibility for the school bus attack. Israel blamed the bus attack on militants from the Fatah faction of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization -- but Fatah denies the accusation. The Palestinian Authority issued a statement of its own denying any responsibility for the school bus bombing.
At a news conference after the retaliatory strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak described the school bus bombing as "barbaric."
Wide power outage in Gaza City
It appeared that nearly half of Gaza City's approximately 1 million residents were without electricity. The only light visible in much of the city was from the missiles, shot from at least three Israeli helicopter gun ships at 12 Palestinian targets.
Targets were hit near Palestinian Authority President Arafat's seaside office, the headquarters of Fatah, and an office of the Palestinian Preventative Security Service, which was demolished by at least six missiles.
A building housing a Palestinian radio station near the border with Israel also was hit.
Mohammed Dahlan, the head of Palestinian Preventative Security, called the retaliatory strike a serious breach of trust on the part of the Israeli government. "I have a message for the Israeli people: This destruction, these attacks, will not bring hope and peace to both peoples, Palestinians or Israelis," Dahlan said.
During the attack, a Palestinian spokesman called for the United States to intervene to try to stop the Israeli attack, which he blamed on Barak.
"This proves our point again that Mr. Barak is really taking us and taking Israelis and taking the whole region down the drain," Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erakat told CNN.
Arafat had called for end to attacks
The bus attack came 48 hours after Palestinian Authority President Arafat called for an end to attacks against Israeli targets from areas under full Palestinian control.
The bus, which had a military escort, was attacked as it traveled along a road under Israeli security control that forms a corridor through Palestinian territory.
A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces said a 120 mm mortar shell, which may have been detonated by attached wires, was used in the bus attack. The spokesman said three Palestinians were seen fleeing the area shortly after the attack. Earlier that morning, the road had been surveyed for explosive devices.
One senior Israeli official told CNN, "We know for sure there are clear linkages between the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and this terrorist attack," against the school bus.
"People around Arafat have direct contact with those who carried out this attack," the official said.
Both sides blame each other for violence that had until Monday left at least 256 people dead since its outbreak September 28. Among the dead are 218 Palestinians, 25 Israeli Jews and 13 Israeli Arabs, according to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent.
Israeli envoy meets with Annan
After the latest round of violence, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Yehuda Lancry, met with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday about the prospect of sending an international observer force to the region.
The Security Council has asked Annan to bridge the differences between Israel and the Palestinians over a peacekeeping force to help quell the violence. Nassir al-Kidwa, the Palestinian representative to the United Nations, was planning to meet Monday afternoon with Annan.
Emerging from his meeting with the secretary-general, the Israeli ambassador said no deal had been reached over the observers. "It was a very useful meeting in a very good atmosphere," Lancry said. "We had our first exchange, and we are going to remain in close contact."
But Lancry reiterated Israel's opposition to the Palestinian proposal for an observer force. He called on Arafat to use his influence to stem the carnage.
"We deplore this violence, and once again we reiterate our call to Mr. Arafat to put an end to this so-called independence intifada to get back to the negotiations, to the logic and spirit of peace," he said.
Erakat called on Annan and others in the international community to send peacekeeping forces to the region.
"I think the international community must gather its resolve now to stop this madness by the Israeli government," he said.
'Palestinians should have condemned it'
After Monday's school bus attack, U.S. officials said they held talks with both sides to prevent more violence.
"We wanted the Palestinians to condemn it ... (instead they) came out with a statement which by implication said, 'It's not our fault,'" said one senior U.S. State Department official.
"That's not what I'd call condemnation," said the official, who said a condemnation may have prevented the Israelis from carrying out the helicopter gun ship attacks.
U.S. officials said the United States won't rule out "Fatah and the Tanzim" as possible suspects in the bus attack, but they don't know "for sure" who was responsible. Tanzim is regarded by Israelis as a more radical element within Fatah.
One senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified, speculated that by blaming the Palestinian Authority the Israelis may be trying to "ratchet up the pressure on Arafat."
This official said that just a few days ago the U.S. felt it was "making some headway" in its efforts to end the violence.
The official cited the decline in violence over the weekend, in which the number of shootings decreased from "50 a day to between 10 to 14" a day.
He referred to a Palestinian security officer's attack on an Israeli army post in Gaza on Saturday, which killed one Israeli soldier and wounded others. The Palestinians announced they would launch an investigation, and Israel did not retaliate, the U.S. official said.
Then Sunday night, U.S. and Israeli officials confirm, Arafat spoke with Barak in an effort to develop a structure of accountability.
But after the bus attack, "We're right back into the cycle of violence and grievance," this senior U.S. official said.
"At this point, we'll have to see what happens in the aftermath. ... I'm always one who sees the door open a crack, but that's getting harder and harder," he said. "All this good work has been immediately undone."
For the time being the U.S. State Department says there are no plans for Middle East envoy Dennis Ross to return to the region, where he held high-level talks just last week.
In addition, U.S. officials say diplomatic talks at the moment are not focused on getting back to the peace table but "on the current situation and how to get out of it."
Ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence decreases, Israeli army says
The Jerusalem aa Web site
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