Witnesses: Israel shells Gaza town
GAZA CITY (CNN) -- Israeli tanks have shelled the Palestinian town of Deir el-Belah in central Gaza, forcing residents to evacuate, witnesses told CNN on Wednesday.
The witnesses said nine tank shells were fired from a nearby Israeli settlement. Palestinian police asked residents to evacuate.
There was no immediate comment from Israeli officials on Deir-el Belah, but Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said two mortar shells were fired by Palestinians into Kfar Darom, a Jewish settlement in Gaza. There were no casualties.
Israeli radio also reported that five mortar shells were fired into an area northeast of Nir Am, a communal farm in Israel, near the northern Gaza border. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for that attack.
No injuries were reported.
Bush, Sharon talk, agree on need for restraint
President Bush spoke for 15 minutes Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and "both agreed on the need for restraint by all parties to avoid further escalation in the region," according to a White House official.
In a phone call initiated by Bush, the two "also agreed restoring calm and stability in the region was in the interest of both the United States and Israel," the official said.
Sharon's office said in a statement that the prime minister "emphasized Israel's commitment to peace but stated that our utmost commitment is to the security of our citizens."
If the violence continued, Sharon told Bush, then "the Israel Defense Forces will have no choice but to carry out preventative measures," according to the statement.
Strike in southern Gaza prompts fears
Earlier Wednesday, IDF carried out a "pinpoint strike" in southern Gaza, bulldozing a Palestinian police station and then withdrawing.
The sudden move prompted fears that the Israelis were repeating a temporary occupation of Palestinian-controlled territory in northern Gaza a day earlier. Israeli troops pulled out of that area before dawn Wednesday after the move was sharply criticized by the United States as "excessive and disproportionate."
The invasion and brief occupation marked the first time in seven years that Israel had occupied Palestinian-controlled territory.
Syria: Open doors to support intifada
In an unusually strong statement, Syrian President Bashar Assad reacted Wednesday to the Israeli actions by saying he was opening the doors for Syrians to volunteer to support the intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israel.
He said Syria could not stand by with its hands tied in the face of Israeli aggression.
Edward Walker, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, was scheduled to meet with the Syrian president and foreign minister Thursday morning in Damascus.
Jewish settlements attacked
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Israel's recent actions in Gaza had been in response to attacks by Palestinians, and he appealed for the Palestinians to halt the violence and return to peace talks.
"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.'"
Earlier Wednesday, shortly after Israel withdrew from the L-shaped portion it occupied in northern Gaza, mortar shells were fired at two Israeli targets.
The IDF said no one was wounded in the attacks, which occurred near Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza and Gush Khatif, a block of Jewish settlements in southern Gaza.
The IDF had reoccupied the area, it said, in order to stop mortar fire that had been aimed at the Israeli town of Sderot in the Negev Desert.
"We never initiated the violence. We have to react to attacks upon us," said Peres. "Palestinians are not supposed to have mortars. They were used without justification."
Israeli troops shut off Gaza
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."
Ashrawi said the Untied States had sent a "clear message" to Sharon that "Israel has crossed a red line." She said the United States had been standing back to give Sharon a chance to carry out his policies but she hoped that the United States would not become more involved.
Israeli officials said the decision to withdraw had already been made when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell sharply criticized Israel's strikes.
Under the Oslo accords, Israeli troops are permanently stationed in Gaza along two roads, one leading to the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom and the other to Netzarim.
The roadways at the Kfar Darom and Netzarim junctions remained closed by Israeli troops, effectively cutting the Gaza strip into three parts.
Gaza also remained closed so that Gaza residents could not enter Israel.
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