Israeli assault on camp kills 11

Palestinian deaths occur while army pursues Hamas leader

March 07, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip - Armored Israeli forces stormed this cinder-block warren before dawn yesterday, killing 11 Palestinians while pursuing a Hamas leader.

Palestinian hospital officials and witnesses said that eight unarmed Palestinians, including at least three children, died in an explosion at the camp's edge as the Israeli forces withdrew. More than 100 people were wounded, some critically, and one fireman was killed as shrapnel scattered body parts and blood across the scarred street.

Palestinian witnesses said that an Israeli tank fired a shell into a crowd that had gathered to watch firemen trying to extinguish a blaze consuming a four-story building.

The Israeli army rejected that account. It said that a tank fired a shell from a spot near the crowd, but in another direction, toward a lone Palestinian who was firing a rocket-propelled grenade at the retreating Israelis. It said that the casualties were caused instead by a Palestinian explosive.

The raid came hours after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 people, including at least 8 middle- and high-school students, aboard a bus in the northern Israeli city of Haifa. The Haifa attack was the first lethal suicide bombing against Israelis in two months. The dead were being identified yesterday, but they were as young as 12 and included a 14-year-old American girl, Abigail Litle, who moved to Israel as an infant with her family. The bomber picked a bus in a quiet, prosperous neighborhood and struck just as schools were letting out.

After the bombing, which came during an intensified Israeli military campaign in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel again sealed off Palestinian areas, which were already tightly restricted. No Palestinian group has claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Israeli investigators said they found a letter near the body of the bomber, a West Bank Palestinian, that praised the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks in the United States. Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, seized on that discovery as further evidence that Israel was battling the same enemy as the United States.

"The cultured world is under a cruel attack by radical Islam," Sharon said, at a ceremony to honor police officers in Jerusalem. "It is an enemy composed of lunatic individuals, lunatic regimes and lunatic countries."

Palestinian officials described the raid here as a revenge attack by Israel. Israeli security officials said that the mission was not connected to the Haifa bombing. Instead, officials said, it was part of a stepped-up campaign against Hamas, begun after Hamas militants killed four soldiers by blowing up a tank north of here Feb. 15.

Since then, Israeli forces have killed more than 50 Palestinian militants and civilians in Gaza, and Hamas has repeatedly vowed to retaliate.

For the second time this week, the White House, which condemned the suicide bombing Wednesday, cautioned Israel yesterday over its treatment of Palestinian civilians. "Clearly there were a number of innocent Palestinians injured in the attack today, and that is a source of concern for the president," said Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, according to Reuters.

The raid into Jabaliya, a militant stronghold, began shortly after midnight when Israeli tanks escorted by helicopter gunships pushed their way into the densely populated, fetid camp just north of Gaza City.

Their destination, the army said, was the home of Abed Al Karim Ziada, identified by Israel as a top Hamas terrorist. The army said its soldiers met fierce resistance, and gun battles raged through the night. Palestinian officials said that three Palestinians - two gunmen and a night watchman - were killed.

Soldiers arrested Ziada and found in his house what the army described as an arsenal, including grenades, two heavy bombs, anti-tank missiles and launchers, and a suicide belt. The army demolished the house.

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