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Israeli Attacks Kill 11 in Gaza City

Five-hour incursion mounted by tanks and helicopters is part of a series of strikes following the deaths of four soldiers Saturday.

February 19, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli tanks and helicopters stormed two Gaza City neighborhoods early today, and Palestinians fought back with gunfire, grenades and antitank missiles. At least 11 Palestinians were killed and about 20 were injured in the raid, part of an intense Israeli campaign against Palestinian militants in the crowded, impoverished coastal Gaza Strip.

Heavy explosions lighted the night sky and shook the sandy ground in the Shajaiyeh neighborhood in northeast Gaza City as terrified Palestinian families huddled in their cinderblock homes during the five-hour incursion that ended shortly before dawn.

Witnesses and hospital officials said the fighting was so fierce that ambulances could not collect the injured until after the Israeli tanks had rumbled away in the directions from which they came. In the aftermath, wailing women filled streets that were left choked by debris and torn up by heavy tank treads.

During the raid, soldiers blew up four metal workshops that Israel said were used to make mortar shells and missiles. Palestinians said that the workshops were innocuous and that two of the deaths occurred when the explosives used to blow up the buildings toppled an adjacent structure as well.

The Israeli army issued a statement saying its forces would "continue to act against the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza." It reported no injuries to its troops and no "substantial" damage, although Palestinians claimed that a bomber had blown himself up very close to an Israeli tank, crippling it.

The militant group Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the suicide attack on the tank, vowed that it would exact revenge. Eight Hamas members have been killed since Sunday in a series of Israeli retaliatory strikes after an Israeli tank was blown up Saturday outside a Jewish settlement in Gaza. The tank's four-man crew was killed.

Hospital officials said that all those who died today were men older than 20 and that they included some civilians. As has become customary during such raids, mosque loudspeakers called on the neighborhood's men to come into the streets and fight the invaders.

The strike was the deadliest and most destructive Israel has staged in Gaza since Jan. 26, when 12 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli operation targeting the Gaza City neighborhood of Zaitoun, a Hamas stronghold.

Israel's defense chief, Shaul Mofaz, pledged over the weekend to "strike hard at our enemy, Hamas," and one of the neighborhoods targeted in today's raid, Tufah, is home to a number of Hamas militants. The other, Shajaiyeh, is more closely associated with Islamic Jihad.

At one point during the night's battles, Palestinian gunmen hurled three grenades from inside a mosque, the army said. It said its soldiers refrained from returning fire out of respect for a holy place.

Palestinian witnesses, however, said troops raked the neighborhood with indiscriminate fire.

"Bullets are coming from all directions -- it's a real war here," Iman Shamali, 39, told the Associated Press.

Palestinians said three of the dead were members of Palestinian intelligence who were on a regular nighttime patrol to prevent the launching of Kassam rockets toward Jewish settlements or Israeli towns. Israel has demanded a halt to such attacks and has launched raids in response to them.

The assault began with Israeli helicopters circling overhead, and then the tanks converged on Gaza City from the north and east. Electrical power was cut, plunging much of the city of nearly half a million people into darkness. The din of fighting could be heard miles away.

The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has hinted that all of the Gaza Strip may be seized by the Israeli military. Palestinians have said they believe that incursions like this one are meant to test their ability to resist such a takeover and that if a U.S.-led war breaks out in Iraq, Israel will seize the opportunity to reoccupy the strip.

Hamas leader Abdulaziz Rantisi said if that happens, Gaza will become "a graveyard for the corpses of the Zionist enemy."

Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the ailing spiritual leader of Hamas, visited the devastated Tufah neighborhood at first light. Followers carried his wheelchair into a damaged elementary school run by the group, where he surveyed smashed concrete and dangling electrical wires.

Yassin, who can speak only in a high-pitched, breathy whisper, told reporters that the military wing of Hamas, Izzidin al-Qassam, would use "all available means, striking all available targets" to defend itself.

Throughout nearly 2 1/2 years of fighting, Israel has killed or captured dozens of militant leaders in the West Bank but has found it more difficult to go after them in Gaza. Several "pinpoint" strikes against top bomb makers or planners have resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties in densely populated districts.

*

Special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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