Israeli forces advance on radical enclaves

Suspected arms factories, homes razed

Iraq offers payment to Palestinians

September 14, 2002|By BOSTON GLOBE

JERUSALEM - In the fiercest fighting this month, Israeli tanks and troops backed by helicopter gunships punched into radical enclaves on the Gaza Strip and West Bank yesterday, killing one Palestinian gunman, smashing houses beneath the steel treads of maneuvering armor, and blowing up suspected weapons factories.

Meanwhile, Iraq pledged to pay $5,000 to any Palestinian whose home is destroyed in Israel's campaign against militants, according to a pro-Iraqi faction in the Gaza Strip.

Earlier this year, President Saddam Hussein started paying $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers in hopes of encouraging more attacks against civilians in the Jewish state.

"Iraq is supporting the Palestinian uprising by all means," said Ibrahim Zannen, spokesman for the Gaza Strip-based Arab Liberation Front.

In the West Bank, Israeli battle tanks and troop carriers swooped into the Palestinian towns of Tulkarm and Tubas, with soldiers rounding up 16 militant suspects and re-imposing curfews on all inhabitants.

There were Israeli news reports of exchanges of small weapons fire between infantry and gunmen near Hebron, with no known casualties.

But for the third straight day, the Gaza Strip was the scene of furious action, with Israeli helicopter gunships flying close support for tanks bashing through the town of Rafah and an adjoining refugee camp, both near the Egyptian border and the scene of constant gun-running by Palestinian militants.

Elsewhere on the Gaza Strip, an apparent botched effort by militants to manufacture a bomb triggered a powerful blast that tore through a house in Beit Lahia. Two of the three brothers killed in the explosion were members of militant factions Islamic Jihad and Hamas, according Palestinians on the scene. The third was just lending a hand.

Four other residents of the house, believed to be other relatives, were undergoing surgery last night, said Dr. Moawia Hassanein of Gaza's Shifa Hospital.

The violence in the region occurred on the ninth anniversary of the famous Sept. 13, 1993, handshake between the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in talks brokered by President Clinton that led to a series of peace accords.

But peace has not been much on the agenda for either side since another date whose anniversary looms - Sept. 29, 2000, when Palestinians launched the current intifada, or uprising, on the eve of Jewish holy days.

Near Rafah, Israeli troops faced heavy fire from automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades as they entered the Brazil refugee camp on the outskirts of the Palestinian-governed town. At least one missile was fired at the Israelis, said a military spokesman.

A militant belonging to Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade was killed in the exchange of fire, according to the military. His identity was not released.

Israeli engineers and infantry used explosives to level six metal foundries that the military claimed had been used to manufacture Qassam rockets and mortar rounds. Palestinians described the structures as machine shops, repair businesses and painting supply depots.

About 20 houses also were heavily damaged or destroyed as Israeli armored vehicles moved in close quarters under thick clouds of dust. Eight Israeli soldiers were slightly injured in a collision between a tank and armored personnel carrier in the withdrawal from the neighborhood.

In recent weeks, the focus of fighting has shifted from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, whose Palestinian sections were considered off-limits to Israeli troops during the spring offensive against militant enclaves because none of the suicide bombers attacking Israel had come from there.

Now, with the West Bank largely subdued, Israel is intent on crushing "terrorist infrastructure" on the Gaza Strip before it poses more of a threat to Israel.

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