Israeli forces poured into Palestinian-controlled areas of the Gaza Strip on 13 February in one of the largest operations of its kind since the intifada began 16 months ago. The latest actions have provoked the first criticisms of Israel from the US for several weeks. Washington had previously concentrated its criticism on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his failure to stem the violence.
The Israeli incursion into Gaza came in response to the deployment of a new type of homemade missile - Qassam-2 - by the Hamas organisation. The Islamist group fired one of the new missiles at an Israeli settlement in Gaza on 10 February, causing no damage. Israel responded with a major air raid on a Palestinian security compound in Gaza, followed by raids on the West Bank towns of Hebron and Ramallah.
The subsequent thrust into Gaza was aimed at arresting Hamas members and capturing missiles and mortars, Israeli defence officials said.
US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on 12 February described the deployment of the new Palestinian missiles as 'deeply troubling'. However he added: 'We are seriously concerned about Israeli attacks over the past several days on Palestinian Authority facilities, particularly in areas that are heavily populated by civilians.'
US pressure on Arafat eased off after the Palestinian leader sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell concerning the weapons shipment intercepted by Israeli naval forces in the Red Sea in January. 'He sent me a letter on the Karine-A, accepting responsibility - not personal responsibility, but as chairman of the Palestinian Authority,' Powell told a congressional committee on 14 February. The US State Department said it was satisfied with the explanation. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held talks with US President Bush in Washington on 7 February, but failed to persuade the US to go through with a threat to sever all contacts with Arafat.
Palestinian Legislative Assembly speaker Ahmed Qorei (Abu Alaa) has held talks with Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres about steps that might be taken towards the creation of a Palestinian state as soon as a lasting ceasefire can be achieved.
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