JERUSALEM (AP) – Palestinian militants shot four rockets at an Israeli town Friday, hours after Israel’s army expanded an operation in the northern Gaza Strip seeking to pre-empt attacks on Israeli territory.

Before daybreak, Israeli troops moved to the outskirts of Beit Lahiya, a town near Gaza’s northern edge, residents said. No exchanges of gunfire were reported, but soon afterward militants fired four Qassam rockets across the border into Israel.

Two of the homemade rockets landed in residential areas of the town of Sderot, causing panic but no injuries, an army spokesman said. He said two more rockets hit open areas.

The escalation of rocket attacks threatens to complicate Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip before October 2005. About 60 rockets have hit Israeli settlements in Gaza and towns in Israel so far this month.

In an effort to halt the attacks, Israeli troops moved into the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip a month ago after two Israelis were killed in Sderot. They were the first fatalities from Palestinian rocket fire in nearly four years.

Troops have bulldozed farmland to expose launching areas around Beit Hanoun and arrested suspected militants. The Haaretz newspaper said Friday more than 900 acres had been destroyed.

In the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, Israeli troops shot and wounded four Palestinians, two seriously, during the funeral of a militant killed Thursday, Palestinian officials said.

Israeli army officials said about 70 people split away from the funeral march and approached the fence on the Israeli border. The officials said Israeli troops fired warning shots in the air, then shot at the leaders of the group. The Palestinians were unarmed, the officials said.

Thousands of people marched through Rafah, dozens of them waving assault rifles and firing into the air, for the burial of Amr Abu Suta, who headed the Ahmed Abu Reish Brigade, a group that broke away from Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. He was killed by a helicopter-launched missile as he was driving his car.

Also Friday, Israeli troops shot and killed several Palestinians near the town of Bureij who were planting explosives near an Israeli crossing with the Gaza Strip, Israeli military officials said. Both Israel Radio and Army Radio reported four Palestinians were killed.

In the West Bank, Israeli soldiers fired tear gas to break up a demonstration by Palestinians and their foreign supporters protesting the separation barrier Israel is building to prevent attackers from reaching Israeli towns and cities. Palestinians say the barrier is an attempt to seize land and draw a political border.

Witnesses said the troops pushed back the demonstrators when they tried to break through a gate near the village of Khirbet al-Taibe, north of the West Bank town of Jenin.

Israeli and Palestinians officials plan to meet this weekend at a hotel on the Dead Sea to discuss coordinating the Israeli pullout next year from the Gaza Strip, participants said.

The officials include Palestinian Cabinet Minister Kadoura Fares and at least two members of Sharon’s Likud Party, Army Radio reported.

“We want to have a pragmatic dialogue on where things should go now, regarding all our relations,” said Etti Livni, a parliament member from the Shinui Party, which is a member of Sharon’s coalition.

Sharon’s plan calls for Israel to withdraw from military camps and 21 civilian settlements in Gaza, but it is uncertain what will be demolished and what will be handed over intact – and to whom.

The uncertainty over who will control the evacuated areas has contributed to a Palestinian power struggle in Gaza and set off a wave of demonstrations against corruption in Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.

AP-ES-07-30-04 1138EDT



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