Israelis smash Palestinian police post in Gaza
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli forces carried out a "pinpoint operation" that destroyed a Palestinian police post in southern Gaza on Wednesday, saying the target was a source of gunfire on Israelis.
The sudden move prompted fears that the Israelis were repeating a temporary occupation of Palestinian-controlled territory in northern Gaza a day earlier.
But the Israel Defense Forces said the troops returned to Israel promptly after completing their mission, near Rafah just inside the border.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the temporary incursion into Gaza on Tuesday had been a "warning" against Palestinian attacks, like the one launched Monday against Sderot, a town five kilometers (three miles) inside Israel.
"This was an increase in the degree of violence and terror and we have had to warn the Palestinians that it will carry a price," Peres told CNN. "So this entrance was a sort of a warning to tell them, 'Please stop it.'"
But Palestinian Council member Hanan Ashrawi said that Israel's assertions that it must defend itself from Palestinian provocations were false.
"Israel constantly provokes Palestinians -- demolishes homes, kills, and still behaves as though it has a God-given right to determine Palestine rights, lives and dictate to the rest of the world," she told CNN. "We don't want violence but it is their policies ... that Palestinian lives and homes are fair game for the Israeli military."
Peres: Mortars create 'new situation'
Hours before the strike against the police post, the IDF said that mortars were fired at Israeli targets in Gaza after Israel withdrew its troops Palestinian-controlled territory in the north of Gaza.
An army spokeswoman said no one was injured by three mortar shells, which landed in the Neve Dekalim settlement in southern Gaza, and three more near an army brigade headquarters in the north.
Israeli troops occupied a mile-square area of northeast Gaza on Tuesday with the avowed aim of stopping such attacks.
"We faced a new situation when the Palestinians introduced mortars," Peres said. "To start with, a mortar is an illegal weapon in the hands of the Palestinians in accordance with the Oslo agreement."
But the move drew heavy criticism from both Arab nations and the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, while acknowledging that Palestinian mortar attacks on Israel were "provocative," labeled the Israeli incursion an "excessive and disproportionate" response.
But Ashrawi, who called the U.S. criticism "rather late," said it was a "very clear message to the Israelis that they had crossed the red line."
Withdrawal complete by dawn Wednesday
The occupied area included the village of Beit Hanoun, where the Israelis said the mortar attacks had originated, with soldiers also deployed along the road from Karni to Netzarim and in points near Gush Katif.
Earlier Tuesday, Israeli generals had said that their troops could occupy the area "for months" but by nightfall the rhetoric was being toned down and a withdrawal announced.
"When Israel announced its operation, it said it was a limited operation. It did not announce it was reoccupying parts of the Gaza Strip from which it had withdrawn," Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told CNN.
Asked if Washington's criticism played a part in the withdrawal, Gold said: "We pay very close attention to statements made by the United States and they're very important to us."
However, Raanan Gissin, an aide to Sharon, said Wednesday that the decision to withdraw had been made Tuesday morning, before Powell issued his statement.
The withdrawal was completed before dawn on Wednesday, a military spokesman said.
The Islamic militant group Hamas has claimed responsibility for the mortar attack on Sderot, a working class town of 24,000 in the Negev Desert on Monday. But Israel blamed Palestinian security forces for the mortar fire.
CNN Jerusalem Bureau Chief Mike Hanna contributed to this story.
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