IAF Helicopters Strike in Gaza; 2 Soldiers Killed in Strip

Witnesses say five missiles destroyed Khan Yunis foundry; IDF spokeswoman: workshop used to make ammunition.

Two soldiers were killed and four others were wounded in two separate attacks Thursday morning in the Gaza Strip. Hours later, Palestinian security officials and witnesses said IAF helicopters fired five missiles at a metal workshop close to the Palestinian police headquarters in the Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis.

Ambulances were racing to the scene, but there were no reports of casualties, the witnesses said. They said four helicopters and an F-16 warplane were in the air, but only two of the helicopters fired missiles.

Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the main target was the metal workshop about 50 meters from the police headquarters building. Israel has attacked such factories in the past, charging that Palestinians make weapons there, including mortars and rockets.

An IDF spokeswoman said the foundry in had been targeted "because it was used by a terror organization to make ammunition."

The owner, Abu Khalil, denied the Israeli allegation, saying his workers built spare parts for electric generators.

"Why did they hit my foundry? I did nothing wrong," he told Reuters by telephone.

In the first attack on IDF troops Thursday, First Lieutenant Malik Grifat, 24, from the Bedouin town of Zarzir, was killed and another soldier wounded after two gunmen opened fire on troops in the northern Gaza Strip, between the settlements of Dugit and Nissanit. He was buried Thursday in the Bedouin cemetery in his hometown of Zarzir.

In the second attack, 21-year-old Sergeant Aviad Dotan, from Mosahv Nir Galim, near Ashkelon, was killed and three others wounded when an explosive device detonated under a Markava 2 tank near the Kissufim Crossing between Israel and Gaza. The wounded were evacuated by helicopter to Soroka Hospital in Be'er Sheva.

Sergeant Dotan will be laid to rest Friday at 11.45 P.M. in the cemetery of moshav where he lived.

The blast blew off the tank's turret, which pinned down the soldiers for several hours, complicating rescue efforts. The explosion set the tank on fire.

The military said it was a two-pronged attack. First, Palestinians fired anti-tank missiles at an army post at night, drawing the tank and soldiers to the scene to search for the launchers. Then the militants set off a huge bomb under the tank.

An umbrella group representing several Palestinian factions claimed responsibility. "This operation came to prove that Palestinian fighters are capable of reaching everywhere and retaliating... for Israeli crimes," a caller told The Associated Press, reading from a statement. The umbrella group is dominated by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction.

The attack was the third Gaza Strip incident this year in which an Israeli tank has been involved in a lethal attack. In February, an 80-kilogram bomb detonated under a Merkava 3 tank as it was traveling on a road between the Netzarim settlement and Karni checkpoint, killing three soldiers and wounding a fourth. The following month, three soldiers were killed and two others were wounded when a bomb exploded under a Merkava tank near the Nitzanim settlement.

An initial IDF investigation into Thursday morning's shooting attack near Nissanit revealed that the soldiers involved were on a routine patrol near the new security fence that runs parallel to the Nissanit bypass road.

At around 8:30 Thursday morning, Grifat and another soldier left the jeep, and were hit almost immediately by the terrorists' fire. Grifat was critically wounded by a gunshot wound to his head, and dies shortly afterward. His colleague suffered moderate injuries to his lower limbs, and was evacuated to the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon for treatment. He was operated on Thursday afternoon, and his condition improved throughout the day.

The IDF believes that an armed Palestinian was waiting for the patrol at the side of the road. When he spotted the jeep approaching, he opened fire and threw grenades in the direction of the soldiers. Another IDF force nearby heard the shooting and began searching for the attacker. After a short chase, they located and killed him. He was found to be carrying a Kalashnikov rifle, grenades, ammunition and a bullet-proof vest.

According to military sources, the shots were fired from a Palestinian school.

Ben-Eliezer puts 'Gaza-First' on hold following attacks Following the strikes, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel reserved the right to retaliate. He also said that because of the attacks, Israel would not implement the Gaza part of an agreement reached last month, aimed at easing tensions.

Under the agreement, Israel turned control of the West Bank town of Bethlehem over to Palestinian security, withdrawing forces that had occupied the town for nearly two months.

Israel was supposed to pull its forces back from forward positions in Gaza and hand control back to the Palestinians, who were to stop attacks and rein in militants, as a test case for the rest of the West Bank.

Ben-Eliezer's spokesman, reporting on the defense minister's remarks at a meeting of his Labor Party, said that Israel would not implement the Gaza portion of the plan because the Palestinians were taking no steps to stop terrorism.

First Lieutenant Malik Grifat laid to rest Hundreds of people attended the funeral of First Lieutenant Malik Grifat, 24, on Thursday. Grifat was buried at the Bedouin cemetery in his hometown of Zarzir. He leaves behind parents, Mohammed and Sha'ara, two brothers and six sisters.

"It's hard to take it in," said Grifat's uncle at the funeral. "He was an exceptional soldier and officer, and he had just signed up for another year in the standing army. He was home last weekend and held a barbeque for all his family and friends. I'm glad that the last time I saw him was under happy circumstances."

Hassan El Hayeb, head of the Beit Zarzir regional council said that the community had already lost 28 of its sons, and that in total, 130 Bedouin members of the security forces had been killed in Israeli wars. He added that the town of Zarzir had suffered a major blow.