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Israel responds to Palestinian missile attack

Buildings burst into flames as an Israeli missile strikes its target Monday.  

GAZA CITY, Gaza (CNN) -- Israel launched a series of airstrikes in Gaza and an armored incursion into the West Bank on Monday in response to the firing of a Palestinian-built Qassam-2 rocket into Israel the day before.

In one of the Israeli strikes, helicopter gunships and F-16 warplanes fired missiles at a security compound housing several prisons in Gaza City.

Apache helicopters launched missiles at the compound, according to witnesses. That round was followed by a wave of missiles fired by Israeli warplanes.

The Palestinian Authority responded by freeing Palestinian militants being held in the Gaza facility.

Two hundred people were treated, most of them injured in the ensuing panic, Palestinian sources said.

Israel sees missiles as escalation

The Israeli military says it seized these Qassam-2 missiles February 6 while they were being smuggled by Palestinians between two West Bank cities.  

Israel views the use of the Qassam-2 rockets as a major escalation in fighting, since the missiles have a range of six to 10 kilometers -- sufficient to hit Israeli cities if fired from the West Bank.

A Qassam-2 was fired from Gaza into Israel on Sunday, landing in a field six kilometers from the Gaza border near Kibbutz Sa'ad in the Negev Desert.

The Israeli army said the Qassam-2, an upgraded 1.5-meter-long version of the Qassam, carried 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of explosives.

No one was hurt, but the Jerusalem daily Ha'aretz quoted an Israeli security official as saying the armed response was to make clear to the Palestinians that Israel "will not abide turning rocket firings into a routine."

On February 6, the Israeli military announced that it had seized a shipment of Qassam-2 missiles as they were being smuggled by Palestinians between two West Bank cities.

The Bush administration expressed its deep concern to the Israeli government Monday over its attacks on Palestinian Authority facilities, a State Department official told CNN.

The official said U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer met with Israeli officials Monday "about the manner in which they have carried out attacks in heavily populated areas," the official said, adding "it is very messy the way they are doing this."

Nablus incursion

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Early Monday, infantry, engineering and tank forces rolled into a Palestinian-controlled area of the West Bank close to the Balata refugee camp in southeast Nablus.

According to a statement from the Israel Defense Forces, the troops were looking for Qassam rockets but did not find any. The IDF said the action was intended "to thwart the many terror attacks that have emerged from the Nablus area."

Israeli forces came under heavy fire from Palestinian gunman during the operation, the IDF said. The tanks withdrew after about two hours, Israel Radio reported.

No Israeli soldiers were injured, according to the IDF. The Palestine Red Crescent Society said no Palestinians were injured.

In Hebron, at least 17 Islamic Jihad and Hamas militants held by the Palestinian Authority were released Monday evening when a crowd of several hundred Palestinians surrounded a jail and demanded they be freed.

Eyewitnesses said Palestinian officials gave in to the crowd's demands and released the prisoners. The crowd then dispersed, they said.

On Sunday, Israel attacked the headquarters of Force 17, the elite guard for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Two employees of the United Nations were wounded and a U.N. facility was damaged in the attack, prompting condemnation of the action from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday.

"The secretary-general deplores the deepening spiral of violence between Israel and the Palestinians," said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard.

"He's dismayed at Israel's shelling yesterday of facilities belonging to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, near civilian areas, with bombs of heavy tonnage which caused substantial damage to United Nations offices and injury to two United Nations employees."

The U.N. said it was the third time the office of Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, had been damaged as a result of attacks by the Israelis.

The bombing also caused damage to other U.N. offices, including that of the representatives of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"Israel's security needs will not be met by hitting civilian targets or by destroying the Palestinian's ability to police and maintain order," Larsen said.

Larsen also expressed outrage that Israel used bombs of "heavy tonnage in such close proximity to civilian areas and United Nations facilities."

An IDF spokesman expressed regret for the injuries to the two employees and the damage to the building.




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