Sharon brushes off criticism of Israeli raid into Gaza Strip

Regrets civilian deaths, but pressure must be kept on, prime minister says


JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has praised the Israeli raid into the Gaza Strip that left 16 Palestinians dead and dozens wounded Monday, expressing regret for civilian lives lost but brushing aside international criticism as he promised more such attacks.

"It was important, and it was successful," Sharon said yesterday. "There will be more operations in the Gaza Strip."

Palestinians said the dead were civilians, most killed by shrapnel when a missile struck a crowded street, but the Israeli army said most were armed fighters.

The U.S. State Department declared itself "deeply troubled" and called for an investigation.

Israel has seized military control of most of the West Bank, and Sharon has repeatedly suggested recently that he would like to shift his focus to Gaza, the stronghold of the militant group Hamas and home to 1.2 million Palestinians and 7,000 Israeli settlers.

Yesterday, after meeting with President Moshe Katsav, Sharon said, "There is a need to be certain that terrorist organizations will not have the freedom to carry out intentional murder."

Even as it criticized the Israeli action, the Bush administration continued to say it understood Israel's need to defend itself. Yet the Israeli pressure on Gaza comes at a delicate time for President Bush as he seeks support for a possible war on Iraq.

The Israeli army controls six of the eight major Palestinian cities and towns. Yesterday, Palestinian gunmen shot and wounded four people traveling in a car near Hebron, prompting Israeli forces to comb a nearby village for suspects and to re-impose a curfew on Hebron.

In Jenin, Israeli troops enforcing a curfew wounded four Palestinians, two of them teen-agers, hospital officials said.

As the West Bank offensive continues, the army is experimenting with new kinds of assaults in Gaza. Monday's operation, into the densely populated town of Khan Younis, marked a new style of mission, senior military officials said, more to press Hamas generally than to hunt down wanted men or weapons factories.

Brig. Gen. Yisrael Ziv, the commander of Israeli forces in the area, said the mission was to "interfere with their self-confidence."

"Hamas is under a lot of stress lately because of our operations," he said, acknowledging that none of those killed had been wanted by Israel. No soldiers were injured.

The death toll in the raid rose to 16 when two Palestinians, ages 16 and 35, died yesterday in a Khan Younis hospital, doctors said.

Palestinian medical officials said a 12-year-old girl was killed yesterday by Israeli troops in Rafah, on the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt. The army said it was reviewing the shooting.

Newly harried by Israel, Hamas found itself pressed for a second day yesterday by the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian police were seeking to arrest those responsible for the killing of the chief of the riot police, Col. Rajeh Abu Lehiya, on Monday. He was kidnapped at a fake Palestinian checkpoint in Gaza City and then riddled with bullets.

The killing appears to have been the work of a Hamas-linked clan seeking vengeance for the death a year ago of one of its members as Abu Lehiya's officers cracked down on demonstrators protesting the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Four people were killed Monday when the Palestinian police clashed with Hamas supporters while cracking down on the Akel clan. Yesterday afternoon, leaders of Hamas and Arafat's Fatah faction met to ease tensions.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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