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Israeli tanks, troops enter refugee camp in Gaza Strip

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- An Israeli helicopter fired a missile into a crowd in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip early Wednesday, wounding 30 people, after 10 Israeli soldiers were wounded nearby in a mortar attack. The violence erupted despite U.S. efforts to promote a Mideast peace plan.

Israeli tanks, covered by attack helicopters, attacked the Khan Younis refugee camp, witnesses said. Israeli military sources said the forces were aiming to stop the firing of rockets and mortars.

The helicopter fired its missile as tanks and bulldozers operated nearby, tearing down buildings, witnesses said.

Khan Younis hospital spokesman Dr. Haidar al-Qedra said 30 people were wounded.

Palestinian governor Hosni Zoaroub said bulldozers tore down 10 buildings in the camp, which is near Jewish settlements.

Zoaroub said 60 people were left homeless. He said the Israelis withdrew early Wednesday after three hours in the camp.

Also Wednesday, explosions and gunfire were heard north of Gaza City in the area of Beit Lahiya, witnesses said, indicating an Israeli military operation there.

The 10 soldiers were wounded, one seriously, in a mortar attack Tuesday on a Gaza base.

Three Israelis were also slightly wounded when a homemade rocket fired from Gaza hit a nearby Israeli town, the military said.

Political leaders meet

In diplomacy, a top European Union leader met with Yasser Arafat on Tuesday, rejecting a joint U.S.-Israeli decision to boycott the embattled Palestinian leader.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seemed to back away from more moderate statements by staking out a tough stand on settlements and suggesting he will try to hold on to much of the West Bank's heartland in the peace process that aims to create a Palestinian state in three years.

Sharon's comments to the Jerusalem Post newspaper came days before a crucial weekend meeting with his new Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas and ahead of next week's meeting with President Bush.

The meetings are seen as critical to jump-starting the "road map" peace plan presented by international mediators two weeks ago.

But Tuesday's developments underlined differences among the members of the Quartet mediation team, as well as the wide gaps between the combatants.

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, whose country holds the rotating European Union presidency, met Tuesday with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to push the "road map."

But unlike Secretary of State Colin Powell who refused to meet with Arafat and met new Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in Jericho, Papandreou saw both men in Ramallah.

Israel and the United States are boycotting Arafat, charging that he is involved with Palestinian terrorism. European nations reject that approach, saying that Arafat remains a key player in Mideast diplomacy.

"We want to live in peace with our neighbor Israel and this is our clear decision," Arafat said, adding that he and Papandreou "agreed on the necessity to make the Israelis accept the road map in order to push the peace process ahead."

Palestinians have accepted the road map, a three-stage blueprint that begins with an end to violence, Israeli army pullbacks and a halt in settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It then allows for a Palestinian state with provisional borders -- perhaps by the end of the year -- and hopes to resolve tough issues like borders, Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem in the last stage.

The road map speaks of parallel action by both sides, but Israel insists a Palestinian crackdown on militants come first.

Sharon told the Jerusalem Post that Israel would hold to some settlements in the heart of the West Bank, citing three by name -- Beit El, Ariel and Emmanuel. Israeli control over those areas would make it extremely difficult to establish a territorially contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank, a goal of the "road map."

Sharon will discuss his objections to the plan with Bush at the White House next week.

Sharon appeared to be reversing an earlier, more compromising stand. In an interview with the Haaretz newspaper last month, he suggested that Israel was ready to part with West Bank areas of biblical significance, citing Beit El and Shilo.

The Israeli leader has suggested in the past, though never formally, that the Palestinians could have about half of the West Bank, composed of disconnected islands of land, as an interim solution. The Palestinians have rejected the idea, saying they are entitled to all the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Tensions rose on another front Tuesday as police arrested the leader and 14 members of the Islamic Movement, the largest Arab political group in Israel, on charges that they funneled millions of dollars to the militant group Hamas. Hamas is responsible for dozens of suicide bombings against Israelis.

The group's no. 2 leader angrily denied the charges, and about 200 movement supporters staged loud protests.


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