Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel is stepping up its counter-terrorism operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as a U.S.-led war against Iraq appears more likely, a senior Israeli official said.
Israeli forces prevented an infiltration into Israel from the Gaza Strip on Monday, only hours after the army destroyed the homes of two terrorists responsible for the weekend murder of four Israelis in the West Bank settlement of Othniel.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his cabinet Sunday that he and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had agreed to intensify the war against terror and all necessary steps to that end would be taken.
Sharon spokesman Ra'anan Gissin said the steps Israel is taking to combat terrorism are a response to increased threats by terrorist groups to perpetrate attacks ahead of an expected U.S.-led offensive against Iraq.
There are currently 40 ongoing alerts of attempts to carry out terror attacks, Gissin told CNSNews.com. Israeli forces prevented 21 attempted infiltrations into the territories in the last couple of days, he said.
"We're seeing a very clear pattern by all the terrorist organizations," Gissin said.
"Some [attacks] are directed by Iran and Iraq in an effort to step up terror activity. It's a harbinger of the war [against Iraq]. Iraq cannot fight by sending missiles," he said, so it creates "other points of friction" as a distraction.
Nevertheless, Gissin said, Israel would do its utmost to prevent any escalation.
"We do not want to allow it to escalate," he said.
That is why Israel is working day and night to mount a "sustained" campaign against the terrorism, following up every intelligence lead, making arrests where possible and where it is "impossible to bring [terrorists] to justice, bring justice to them," he added.
The decision to accelerate Israeli military against Palestinians came after two Palestinian militants infiltrated the settlement of Othniel, near Hebron on Friday evening. They broke into the kitchen during the Sabbath Eve meal and killed four Israelis, two of them soldiers.
Staff Sgt. Noam Apter managed to bolt the door from the kitchen to the dining room before being killed, thereby preventing a greater tragedy.
Ten other soldiers and civilians were wounded by the two Islamic Jihad terrorists who were disguised as Israeli soldiers, armed with M-16 automatic rifles.
Soldiers killed one terrorist as the two fled. A second terrorist was killed in a shoot-out two hours later, in which three soldiers were lightly wounded.
Israeli forces on Monday demolished the homes of the two terrorists as part of what it called "the continuing war on terror and its infrastructure."
The destruction of the homes was intended to transmit the message that "there is a price to be paid" for all those that participate in terror, the army said in a statement.
Israel views the demolition of houses as a deterrent measure but Palestinians claim that it is a form of collective punishment.
Later on Monday, Israeli troops shot dead a terrorist who managed to penetrate the security fence surrounding the Gaza Strip and entered into Israel, on the way to carry out an attack, an army spokesperson said.
He opened fire on a reservist force, which returned fire, killing him. The terrorist was wearing an Israeli army uniform and bulletproof vest and carrying n AK-47, grenades, the spokesperson said.
Nearby, troops found an explosive device, which the terrorist had apparently dropped and that was supposed to be part of a combined attack, she added.
This was the third time in the last six weeks that terrorists have managed to penetrate the security fence. "They are trying very hard to get into Israel," she said.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian who was attempting to light or throw a firebomb, according to witnesses.
The army confirmed that soldiers had shot at a man who was trying to throw a Molotov cocktail at them in the Casbah area of the city.
Elsewhere in the West Bank, soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian who crashed his vehicle into an armored car, tipping the jeep on its side. A solider was lightly injured.
The man emerged from his vehicle immediately but appeared to be carrying something suspicious, the army spokesperson said. The soldiers, who assumed they were dealing with a terrorist, fired at him, killing the man, he added.
Palestinian security officials were quoted as saying that the man was a schoolteacher, who delivered groceries on the side to make extra money.
The army said it had opened an investigation into the incident.
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