JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Sunday that Israel would respond severely and use "different means" to battle terrorists who try to disrupt a planned pullout from the Gaza Strip next month, after Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli couple.
Palestinian terrorists shot and killed an the couple as they drove near the Gaza border hours after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ended a visit to the region to promote the withdrawal and to try and save a ceasefire that Israel and the Palestinian Authority declared in February.
"Israel will not tolerate this terror," Sharon told his cabinet. "I told the Secretary of State that additional orders that were given to the defense establishment regarding terror were clear and that we would respond severely to it."
"We will respond with harsh means and different reactions to terror that coincides with the pullout," he said.
Violence has raged in recent weeks despite the truce. Palestinian terrorists have upped their rocket and mortar bomb attacks against Jewish settlements in Gaza and nearby Israeli towns in what they say are in retaliation for Israel's killings and arrests of gunmen.
Israel has vowed not to allow terrorists to disrupt its planned evacuation of all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of the 120 in the West Bank and has said it could move into Gaza towns to stop them if attacks ensue.
"I made it clear to her that our reactions would be of a different kind and would be accompanied by additional severe means if terror ensues during the pullout or after it," Sharon said.
Israeli couple killed
Dov Cole, 58, and his wife Rachel Mizrahi-Cole, 53, of Jerusalem were killed when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on their vehicle near the Kissufim border crossing in southern Gaza early on Sunday. The attack marking the latest in a recent surge of violence that has flared in recent months despite the truce.
Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, part of Abbas's Fatah group, claimed joint responsibility for the shooting but said they were still committed to the ceasefire.
The attack, they said, was in response to recent Israeli killings of terrorists and would be followed by more if the army continued its operations against gunmen in the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas condemned the shooting of the Israelis, saying it hurt Palestinian interests and gave Sharon an excuse to act against his people.
Settlers and right-wingers say the withdrawal would reward terrorists and thousands plan to try and stop the pullout.
Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who says he opposes the plan despite having voted in favor of it in the Knesset, said he objected to an Israeli proposal to have Egyptian troops control the Philadelphi line, a buffer zone on the Egypt-Gaza border that Israel controls and where terrorists have dug tunnels to smuggle weapons into Gaza.
"If the IDF leaves the Philadelphi line, it could create a large opening for terrorists like the ones who operated in Egypt," he said, referring to a series of bombings that killed 83 people in Sinai on Saturday.
Withdrawing from the buffer zone, he said, could make it easier for terrorists to infiltrate into Gaza with deadly weapons that they could use against Israeli towns.
"No one will protect Israel's security better than IDF soldiers," he said.
Meanwhile, a cabinet committee that handles the withdrawal met to discuss what Israel would do with furniture or agricultural tools of settlers who resist evacuation. A Defense Ministry official said it could be confiscated if settlers don't leave their homes 48 hours after the start of the withdrawal in mid-August.
Nonetheless, officials said the objects would likely be stored for the settlers and later transferred to their new home for them.