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Deadly Battles in the Mideast

Israeli forces and Palestinian militants fight in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Fourteen Palestinians are killed.

May 02, 2003|Henry Chu and Ruth Morris | Special to The Times

GAZA CITY — Hours after receiving a new plan for peace in the Middle East, Israel on Thursday sent its forces into the Gaza Strip and West Bank in a day of bloody confrontation that left at least 14 Palestinians dead, including a 2-year-old boy.

It was the highest death toll in a single day for the Palestinians in months and some of the most intense fighting since the intifada began 31 months ago. The violence made reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians seem as distant as ever despite the latest U.S.-backed "road map" to peace.

Palestinian officials accused the Israeli government of trying to undermine the peace plan and the government of Mahmoud Abbas, who was sworn in Wednesday as the first Palestinian prime minister. Abbas is perceived as a moderate who advocates an end to Palestinian armed struggle.

"Less than 12 hours after the road map was delivered, and less than 24 hours after the new government took office, Israel is back to its criminal operations," said Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister. He called on the authors of the road map -- the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia -- to intervene.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 03, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
Middle East "road map" -- Recent articles, including one in Friday's Section A, stated that the Middle East peace initiative calls on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and end its settlements. The document calls on Israel to withdraw from Palestinian areas occupied after Sept. 28, 2000. The plan also calls on Israel to dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001 and freeze all settlement activity.

David Baker, a spokesman for the Israeli government, said the incursion into Gaza was to capture suspected terrorists and had nothing to do with the peace initiative.

"It's not a matter of bad timing. It's a matter of Israel taking steps to thwart the same kind of terror that has left so much devastation in Israel in 31 months, including 89 suicide attacks," Baker said.

"If Israel has information that there are certain individuals who are planning on carrying out hostile intentions against Israel, then what are we expected to do? Are we expected to sit back and wait till they get to our backyard? No, we're going to go to their front door."

The military said its target was three brothers who were senior members of Hamas, a radical group that carried out a deadly suicide attack in Tel Aviv this week. Three were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a popular seaside cafe, in an apparent effort to also embarrass Abbas, who was sworn in hours earlier.

Under cover of darkness, Israeli soldiers thrust into Gaza City in tanks and armored vehicles and laid siege to the Shijaya neighborhood about 2 a.m. Hundreds of residents were engulfed in the ensuing street battle, a shootout between Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinian militants who some said were summoned to the area by the loudspeakers of a mosque. The fighting trapped people in their homes and left some victims of the crossfire lying bleeding and untended -- sometimes for hours -- in streets and buildings that ambulances could not safely reach, witnesses said.

By the end of the afternoon, the three wanted men were dead, according to the Israelis. An Israeli military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the three brothers -- Yusuf, Iman and Mohammed abu Hein -- had been linked to major terrorist attacks over the years, including deadly suicide bombings in Jerusalem and the city of Ashkelon in 1996.

The men were also allegedly involved in launching rockets into Israel. A cache of ammunition, grenades, rifles and explosive devices was found in their home after the three men were killed, said Maj. Sharon Feingold, a military spokeswoman.

Also dead were nine other people, including the 2-year-old, shot in the head, and a 13-year-old youth, according to hospital officials. More than 60 people were injured. The Israeli army said nine of its soldiers were also wounded in the fray.

"This is too much force and firepower for someone intending to arrest" suspects, Abdel Razek Majaydeh, the Palestinian general security commander in Gaza, told the Israeli online newspaper Ynet. "Two [children] have been killed in this operation, and others, innocent civilians, were only trying to get away from the scene."

In another clash Thursday, near the city of Hebron in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers fatally shot two armed Palestinians. One of the dead was reportedly a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group blamed for numerous attacks on Israeli civilians.

Thursday's violence erupted less than a day after international mediators presented the Israeli and Palestinian governments with the long-awaited road map, which calls for each side to take specific steps leading to a Palestinian state by 2005. It starts with an end to terrorism and an immediate cease-fire.

"In Phase I, the Palestinians immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence ... such action should be accompanied by supportive measures undertaken by Israel," according to the peace plan.

The Palestinian leadership is to issue "an unequivocal statement reiterating Israel's right to exist in peace and security and calling for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire to end armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere,'' it says. All official Palestinian institutions are to end incitement against Israel.

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