IAF Strike Kills Three Islamic Jihad Militants in Northern Gaza

Hamas vows to keep Israeli aircraft within its line of fire after IAF helicopter hit by machine gun fire on Friday.

Yuval Azoulay
Avi Issacharoff
Haaretz Correspondents
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Yuval Azoulay
Avi Issacharoff
Haaretz Correspondents

Three Palestinian militants were killed early Saturday night in an Israel Air Force strike east of Gaza City. According to the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman's Office, the men were Islamic Jihad members on their way to launch Qassam rockets at Israel.

The men were identified as Bassel Shabet, Mohammed Sha'er and Hassan Shakura. According to the Shin Bet security service, they were behind the firing of the Qassam that cost Osher Twito, 8, of Sderot his leg last month. Osher's brother Rami, 19, was also hurt in the rocket attack.

Shortly after this incident, IAF aircraft fired at two armed militants in an open area near Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip. The IDF confirmed that the men were hit.

The IDF actions were the first attacks on armed militants in the Strip in over a week, since the steep drop in rocket fire aimed at Israel. Rocket fire from the Strip resumed on Thursday in response to an Israeli assault on an Islamic Jihad cell in Bethlehem, in which senior Jihad military commander Mohammed Shehadeh was killed. Eight Qassams were fired into Israel Friday and two Saturday. No injuries or damage were reported.

On Friday afternoon, Hamas militants directing machine-gun fire at an IAF combat helicopter scored a single bullet hit into one of the aircraft's panels. The pilots returned to base, where an examination confirmed that very little damage had been caused.

The helicopter had been circling over the northern Gaza Strip, on routine patrol to observe and fire on Qassam launch cells.

An IDF Spokesman statement issued after the incident said that the IAF does not provide details about its activities. However, a senior military source said this weekend, "Several times in the past, when the Palestinians observered IDF helicopters entering the Gaza area they have lifted the barrels of rifles and machine guns in an attempt to hit them. This time a single bullet hit a panel but did not cause serious damage. It has happened in the past and it should not be dismissed lightly." The source added that when the aircraft returned to base it did not make an emergency landing.

Hamas military wing spokesman Abu Obeida said the organization's militants would continue "to confront the Zionist warplanes, vehicles and soldiers." He said Hamas gunmen "fired machine guns at the helicopter from different directions," calling it "progress for the resistance and a message to the forces of occupation that our people will continue to attack with any means they get."

Abu Obeida said the machine guns were confiscated from the security headquarters of Fatah during the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip last year. According to various reports, Hamas is in possession of more than 10 Russian-made KPV-14.5 heavy machine guns. During the fighting in the Gaza Strip about two weeks ago, militants were photographed on a few occasions firing heavy machine guns at Israeli aircraft.

The Palestinian news agency Maan reported Friday that the office of Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah called Shehadeh's widow and pledged the organization's financial support for her family and those of the other three Islamic Jihad men killed in Wednesday's raid in Bethlehem.

All four Islamic Jihad men were buried with the yellow Hezbollah flag.

Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, also spoke with relatives of the four men.

Palestinian militant organizations have recently issued statements on a few occasions claiming successful hits on IDF helicopters providing cover to Israeli ground forces engaged in activities deep into Palestinian territory in the Strip.

Concerns about the possible acquisition by terror organizations of anti-tank weapons was first raised in the Israeli military establishment during the height of the second intifada. Officials feared that Russian-made surface-to-air Strela missiles had been smuggled into Gaza in order to bring down IDF helicopters. Such missiles have never been fired in Gaza but as a precautionary measure even before the 2005 disengagement the IAF has avoided flying very important personages over Gaza's skies.

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