JERUSALEM - At least six Palestinians were killed and dozens injured yesterday in the southern Gaza Strip when Israeli soldiers opened fire with tanks and machine guns during what the army described as a fierce gunbattle.
Army officials said the battle began when soldiers building an embankment near the Egyptian border were attacked with anti-tank grenades and returned fire. The dead included a 4-year-old boy, a 12-year-old girl, an elderly man and two women, according to Dr. Ali Mousa, head of Mohammed Yousef Najjar Hospital in Rafah.
He said the dead were civilians who had been inside homes that were hit by tank shells. The army later said two of the dead Palestinians had been armed.
Mousa said most of the injured were children near a United Nations school hit by gunfire and at least one tank shell. "It's a crime," the doctor said, describing his emergency room as jammed with critically injured patients. "The ambulances are still coming."
Witnesses said the clash began when Israeli soldiers started building an army tower near the Egyptian border, a volatile strip of land controlled by Israel and a frequent flash point in the two-year conflict.
Army officials said their soldiers were attacked while building a protective embankment with a bulldozer. They said rock- and bottle-throwing escalated to gunfire, and then anti-tank grenades were thrown, damaging an armored vehicle.
"The terrorists were shooting from heavy machine guns, and they were throwing grenades," said an army spokeswoman. "After a while, the soldiers got to be in serious jeopardy."
She confirmed that troops, none of whom were injured, fired tank shells but said only buildings identified as sources of fire were targeted. She said Palestinian militants "work from within the civilian population. Our forces try to avoid hurting the innocents, and of course we express regret if we have."
Yesterday's battle comes after a series of Israeli army raids in the Gaza Strip - home to 1.2 million Palestinians and 7,000 Jewish settlers - in which many civilians were killed. In July, an F-16 warplane dropped a 1-ton bomb on an apartment in Gaza City to kill the head of the militant wing of the Hamas group but also killed 15 bystanders, nine of them children.
On Oct. 7, an army raid into the Khan Younis refugee camp north of Rafah killed 17 people, a dozen of whom died when a helicopter fired into a crowd as the operation was drawing to a close. The army said it fired at armed militants shooting at retreating troops; Palestinians said all killed were civilians inspecting damage from the raid.
About 120,000 people live in Rafah, a militant stronghold and the site of frequent battles with Israeli troops. The army regards it as a key arms-smuggling port and frequently raids houses to uncover tunnels dug under the border with Egypt.
Army officials said yesterday that their forces came under fire for more than an hour. But Palestinians in Rafah described the firing from Israeli soldiers as indiscriminate. They said heavy tank-mounted machine guns were used as well as at least five tank shells, which slammed into homes and a school run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.
Sami Mushasha, a U.N. spokesman in Gaza, said few students were in the school because it was between shifts. But he said many students going to and from the building might be among the injured.