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11 Palestinians killed in raid on refugee camp

Friday, March 7, 2003

JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip -- In the most intense battle in Gaza in months, an Israeli army raid left 11 Palestinians dead Thursday, including eight who witnesses said were hit by an Israeli tank shell fired at a crowd. Israel insisted it targeted only armed men.

More than 140 Palestinians were hurt, 35 of them seriously, doctors said.

The crackdown at the Jabaliya refugee camp -- the largest and most heavily armed Palestinian shantytown -- came a day after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 14 Israelis and an American teenager on a bus in the Israeli port city of Haifa.

In the West Bank, four Palestinians -- two gunman, a 16-year-old boy and a 55-year-old woman cutting grass for her sheep -- were killed by Israeli troops.

Also Thursday, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat told aides he will name his deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, as prime minister in a meeting of the Palestinian Legislative Council next week, said the speaker of the council, Ahmed Qureia. Arafat has been under international presssure to institute political and financial reforms in the Palestinian Authority to get peace negotiations restarted.

After nightfall Thursday, witnesses said about 100 Israeli tanks and other military vehicles moved toward the Jabaliya camp again, signaling the second large-scale incursion in the area in as many days. The Israeli military would say only that an operation was in progress.

Israeli military officials said on condition of anonymity that the incursion was only meant to thwart efforts to fire rockets into nearby Israeli areas -- three had been set off earlier but caused no injuries -- and was not a large operation.

But the troop movement caused panic in the area. "We are expecting a new bloody massacre, God help us," said the mayor of nearby Beit Lahiya, Mohammed Masri.

In raiding Jabaliya, troops met fierce resistance from hundreds of Palestinian gunmen who fired assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at Israeli tanks and helicopters raking the streets with machine-gun fire. In anticipation of an incursion, militants had also planted explosives in the streets, detonating them by remote control as armored vehicles drove by.

The army said several tanks were damaged in the fighting. "We were prepared," said a gunman, his face covered by a black ski mask.

The target of the raid was Abdel Karim Ziada, a Hamas militant and weapons maker. Soldiers searching his family home found assault rifles, grenades, explosive devices and anti-tank missile launchers, the army said.

Troops later blew up the house.

Israeli military commentators criticized the timing of the raid, saying world sympathy for Israel after the bus bombing was pushed aside by the many Palestinian casualties in Gaza.

In the early stage of the raid, sometime after midnight, two gunmen and a mosque guard were killed by Israeli fire. Close to 7 a.m., as Israeli troops were withdrawing, eight Palestinians -- including three boys ages 12, 13 and 14 -- were killed in disputed circumstances.

As word spread that the army was pulling out, Jabaliya residents rushed out despite calls from mosque loudspeakers to remain indoors. A large crowd gathered outside a furniture store that was on fire.

Israeli commanders said the fire was caused by an explosion set off inside the store by Palestinians, targeting Israeli vehicles as they passed by. "From inside a store, a very large bomb was detonated at us," said an officer, who identified himself only as Lt. Col. Moshe.

As firefighters tried to douse the burning building, another explosion was heard just up the alley.

One witness, Fadl Nadi, said he was watching from his apartment when he noticed two gunmen firing at an Israeli tank from near the burning building. "From the direction of the tank, I saw a projectile flying past and ... I saw a fireman flying in the air," Nadi said.

TV crews filmed part of the incident. In the footage, two firefighters aim hoses at the burning building, and the sound of gunfire can be heard. At one point, streaks of light -- apparently from a projectile -- hit near the burning building. A firefighter is thrown to the ground, and frenzied bystanders flee. Several men carry a body.

The Israeli military acknowledged it fired two tank shells in the raid -- one early in the operation and another toward the end.

The tank commander in the area, Lt. Col. Dotan, said a tank fired a shell in the direction of a masked man preparing to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at an Israeli position.

Khaled Abu Kheir, an ambulance driver, said an explosion shook the camp. "I saw human parts ... flying in front of me," he said.

Dotan said he was certain only the militant was hit by the shell and that some people may have been killed inside the building by the explosion or the fire. But doctors at Shifa hospital said eight people were killed, apparently in the street, all by shrapnel, and that none had been in the burning building.

Doctors said most of the injuries were caused by tank shell shrapnel. A Reuters cameraman and photographer were among the wounded.

The Israeli military said the Jabaliya raid was planned in advance and not a response to the bus bombing. With 110,000 residents, Jabaliya, near Gaza City, is the largest refugee camp in the strip and perhaps the most militant.

Since mid-February, Israel has raided Gaza towns and camps almost nightly in an offensive targeting the Islamic militant group Hamas. No organization claimed responsibility for Wednesday's suicide bombing, but the assailant's family said he was a Hamas supporter.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday again compared Palestinian bombings -- there have been dozens in the past 29 months -- to global terrorism. Palestinians say theirs is a legitimate fight against Israeli occupation.

"The terror that attacked the twin towers is the same terror that murders school children," Sharon said. Nine of those killed in Haifa were younger than 18.

One of the gunmen killed in the West Bank was shot near the Jewish settlement of Hamra that he apprently intended to infiltrate, the military said.

In Bethlehem, a militant from the Islamic Jihad group was killed in a gun battle that erupted as soldiers came to arrest him at his home. A soldier was lightly hurt, the military said.


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