11 Palestinians die in Israeli raid in Gaza

Soldiers demolish 4 metal shops allegedly used to build rockets

February 20, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - The Israeli army has entered this sprawling city and its environs so often that its targets have become as predictable as the results.

A raid yesterday on two Gaza City neighborhoods mirrored past operations both in scope and in the number of dead. Israeli soldiers demolished four metal workshops they said had been used by Palestinian militants to build crude rockets. Eleven Palestinians were killed.

The Israeli army, which suffered no casualties, said that nearly all the Palestinian dead were combatants.

Palestinian doctors said five of the dead were civilians, including three young men killed when soldiers blew up one of the shops, burying the men under three stories of jagged concrete blocks and debris.

"The Israelis just keep coming and coming," said Muhammad al-Qata, 58, whose workshop in the Tufah neighborhood, near the center of Gaza City, was among the ones reduced to rubble. "It never ends. I expected them to destroy the machinery, not the building."

Al-Qata, who lived above the workshop with 16 family members, said soldiers warned everyone to evacuate, wired the building with dynamite and withdrew. Apparently thinking the army had left for good, his son, Tamer, 23, and brothers Said Hilo, 21, and Alo, 26, returned to the building.

Israeli soldiers, who commanders said had no idea people were nearby, detonated the explosives by remote control. The three young Palestinians, just feet from the blast, were trapped under debris. It took hours to retrieve their bodies. Shock waves brought down a small apartment building on one side of the shop and an industrial clothes washing facility on the other.

Al-Qata said he built his metal shop in 1987 and had five $7,000 lathes.

"I made water pipes," he said. "That is all."

The Israeli army, which has destroyed more than 100 similar shops in the past two years, says those metal pipes are also sold to the militant group Hamas, which turns them into Kassam missiles, relatively crude devices that have been fired at Jewish settlements and into Israel.

Yesterday, after the army had pulled out of Gaza, four Kassam missiles slammed into the Israeli town of Sderot. One struck a factory, injuring a 43-year-old man. The army said they had been fired from the Gaza neighborhood of Beit Hanoun.

The army had threatened to strike against Gaza and hunt down Hamas leaders after four Israeli soldiers were killed Saturday when their tank was destroyed by a mine planted by Hamas.

Since Sunday, seven Hamas operatives have been killed here - six in a mysterious explosion that Hamas blamed on Israel - and one in a roadside ambush by an Israeli undercover unit. The dead included the deputy chief of Hamas' military wing and the engineer credited with designing Kassam rockets.

The army said yesterday's operation was another salvo in a long-running campaign targeting Hamas strongholds.

"It was a precision and pinprick move," said Capt. Sharon Feingold, an Israeli army spokeswoman.

The course of the battle, which lasted for up to five hours, remained in dispute yesterday. The army made its initial push late Tuesday into the Shajaiyeh neighborhood, southeast of central Gaza City, with a column of tanks.

As the line of armored vehicles plowed through fields, militants were grabbing guns and getting ready for battle. Some took cover behind large dirt mounds prepared days before in expectation of an attack.

Karim Batron, 21, a member of Hamas, preferred a frontal assault. His brother Fuad Batron, 40, said Karim grabbed a suicide bomber's belt, wrapped it around his waist and ran to a tank and blew himself up.

"All week, he told us he was going to be a martyr," Batron said yesterday at a Hamas mourning tent.

Feingold said a man had tried to throw an anti-tank grenade and died when it exploded in his hand. She said the tank was not damaged.

Israeli tanks continued onto Baghdad Street, between rundown houses on one side and garbage-strewn orange groves and junkyards on the other. Fierce gunbattles raged at a wide, sand-swept crossroads, and Palestinians said an Israeli helicopter fired a missile at a speeding car and killed three Palestinian intelligence officers inside.

Palestinians said they disabled at least two Israeli tanks in the fighting, and pointed to a 300-yard-long, 6-inch-deep gouge running down Baghdad Street that they said was made when a disabled tank was towed away.

Feingold said several Israeli armored personnel carriers were hit with anti-tank grenades and damaged, but not severely enough to become disabled or forced to pull out of the operation.

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