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5 Die as Battles Rage Near Gaza Refugee Camp

September 10, 2004|Laura King and Fayed abu Shammalah | Special to The Times

GAZA CITY — Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops fought intense battles Thursday on the outskirts of the largest refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, with schoolchildren scampering through sandy alleyways just yards from the fighting. Five Palestinians were killed, including a 9-year-old boy.

More than three dozen Palestinians, both civilians and combatants, were wounded in the fighting, and two others were killed in confrontations with Israeli forces elsewhere in Gaza and in the West Bank, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

The Israeli push to the edge of the sprawling Jabaliya refugee camp, just north of Gaza City, represented a significant widening of an incursion that began a day earlier in the northern Gaza Strip.

The Israeli aim is to stop the firing of homemade Kassam rockets toward Israeli towns near Gaza, but the volleys continued even at the height of the fighting.

Jabaliya, a vast slum that is home to about 100,000 Palestinians, is a stronghold of Hamas and other militant groups. Gunmen, many of them masked and in camouflage, offered fierce resistance as the Israelis moved in with tanks backed by helicopter gunships.

Drawn into the streets before dawn by calls from mosque loudspeakers, Palestinian fighters planted homemade land mines in the paths of the Israeli armored vehicles and fired antitank missiles. Tanks responded with heavy machine-gun fire, and Israeli snipers took up positions and picked off Palestinian gunmen one by one.

The worst of the fighting took place less than a quarter of a mile from a United Nations-administered school, and curious little boys strayed ever closer to the battle scene. As a masked fighter in a green Hamas headband methodically squeezed off round after round of automatic-weapon fire from an alley, three wide-eyed youngsters could be seen crouching just behind him.

The dead boy was identified as Munir Deigiss, who relatives said was playing outside his grandfather's house when struck in the chest by a bullet.

The Israelis said they had destroyed three foundry-type workshops where Kassam rockets were assembled.

The makeshift projectiles, usually fired toward the Negev desert town of Sderot a mile from the Gaza Strip, rarely cause injuries or damage. But an Israeli toddler was killed this year when a rocket fell in front of his preschool, and Israel has since redoubled its efforts to prevent the militants from using northern Gaza as a launching ground.

So far, the Israeli drive to prevent rocket assaults has centered on the villages of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, where hundreds of acres of lemon and olive groves have been bulldozed by the Israeli army to deprive attackers of cover.

Troops have largely refrained, though, from pursuing the militants into the winding alleyways of Jabaliya. In the four years of the current uprising, some of the worst Palestinian civilian death tolls have occurred when soldiers have chased gunmen into crowded refugee camps, where flimsy cinder-block homes provide little protection for families living there.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath appealed for international intervention to halt the fighting in northern Gaza. "The civilized world ... must act to halt these Israeli crimes," he said.

Israel, for its part, repeated oft-stated threats to expel or otherwise move against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said in comments broadcast Thursday on Israel Radio that Arafat's expulsion was "closer than ever." However, several senior government officials said there were no immediate plans for action against the 75-year-old Palestinian Authority president.

In the West Bank, a Palestinian was killed by an Israeli army jeep apparently trying to escape a mob of stone-throwers near the Al Amari refugee camp outside the city of Ramallah. Earlier, a Palestinian man was shot to death as he approached the fence surrounding Gaza's main Jewish settlement bloc.

*

Times staff writer King reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Abu Shammalah from Gaza City.

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