A promised Israeli offensive against leaders of the Intifada, the three-and-a half-year-old popular uprising against Israeli occupation, unfolded late on Tuesday when three missiles crashed into the house of an Islamic Jihad (IJ) commander in Gaza City, killing two people, one of them a civilian.

The commander escaped with minor injuries but another IJ member was killed. 

Israeli officials said the campaign was aimed at smashing Gaza factions to prevent them claiming victory should Prime Minister Ariel Sharon go ahead with a planned evacuation of Jewish settlements from the seaside territory. 

Palestinian resistance fighters took up positions and swore to fight to the finish, anticipating a widescale Israeli invasion of Gaza, where 7500 Israelis live amid 1.3 million Palestinians. 

"We prepared ourselves and said farewell to our families. If
they come in, it will be a battle to the death," one fighter said. 

'Crime'

Commenting on the killings in Gaza, Khalid al-Batsh, a key member of Islamic Jihad told Aljazeera: "What happened was a crime against the Palestinian people but the major crimes are the occupation's threats, the invasion and the killings in Rafah which are still going on.

"We call on the international community and the Arab and Muslim nations to play their roles in stopping the aggressions." 

Al-Batsh also lashed out at the United States. "We were hoping to hear an announcement by a US official condemning the massacres and the demolishing of houses in Rafah and Gaza," he said.

"But the US has sided with the terrorism of the Jewish state and said it was their acquired right. The US is as responsible for these crimes as Israel. It is also responsible for the Israeli offensive actions."

Rafah raid

Palestinians continue to resist
Israeli aggression

In the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza, an Israeli helicopter fired two missiles overnight into a group of Palestinians, killing a fighter and a bystander, witnesses said. 

Military sources said troops fired two missiles at two separate groups of armed Palestinians laying explosive charges intended to counter Israeli forces who frequently raid the camp, a bastion of armed factions. 

Another Israeli missile launched into the camp about 08:00 GMT killed a 17-year-old civilian, and critically wounded a boy of 15 who died later, medics said. Israeli military sources said the missile targeted a group of gunmen digging in close to its troops. 

Palestinian security sources said six Israeli tanks, backed by helicopters, also pushed several hundred metres into the Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza, with Israeli soldiers firing machinegun rounds from positions nearby. 

Islamic Jihad identified one of the dead in the Gaza City
missile attack as a member and the other as a passerby. Fourteen people, including three children, were hurt. 

"The invasion of the Israeli occupation forces into Block O at Rafah refugee camp and al-Qassas area is still going on," said Aljazeera correspondent in Gaza, Hiba Akila.  

Israeli bulldozers and tanks cordoned off a number of houses to demolish them, forcing the residents out by threatening  them with arms, added the correspondent.

Retaliation

Sharon's security cabinet approved a new offensive to crush the Intifada after Palestinian resistance fighters killed 10 people in human bombings in the heavily guarded port of Ashdod last week in response to continued Israeli aggression.

"The US has sided with the terrorism of the Jewish state and said it was their acquired right. The US is as responsible for this crime as Israel. It is also responsible for the Israeli offensive actions"

Khalid al-Batsh,
a key member of Islamic Jihad 

The Ashdod attack alarmed security chiefs because the bombers managed to get out of fenced-in Gaza territory for the first time in almost three-and-a-half years of conflict. 

Deputy Defence Minister Zeev Boim linked the offensive to Sharon's plan to remove Gaza settlers as part of moves, prompted by an impasse in peacemaking that would also deprive Palestinians of West Bank land they want for a state. 

"The decision to escalate ongoing operations is intended to prevent Palestinians from turning the disengagement plan, if it is carried out, into some kind of heroic victory over Israel pulling out under fire," Boim said on Israel army radio.