Israel stages major raid on Gaza refugee camp

Five Palestinians killed in search for militants

April 20, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JERUSALEM - More than 30 Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers roared into the southern Gaza Strip in a major raid directed at Palestinian militants, witnesses and the Israeli army said. At least five Palestinians were killed - including a 15-year-old boy - and more than 35 injured in heavy exchanges of fire during the operation, which began last night and continued into early today.

Earlier yesterday in the West Bank, a Palestinian cameraman filming violence in Nablus was shot dead by an Israeli soldier.

In Gaza, Israeli attack helicopters hovered overhead, while armored bulldozers and jeeps took part in the incursion at the Rafah refugee camp, just across the border from Egypt.

Rafah has been the scene of frequent fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen, and the strike appeared to be one of the most sweeping military actions in the area during the past 30 months of Mideast violence.

The emergency room at Najar Hospital in Rafah was a scene of pandemonium as casualties streamed in, according to Palestinian medical workers who said the wounded included Palestinian militants and civilians.

The Israeli army said its troops faced gunfire, anti-tank rockets and grenade attacks, but there was no immediate word of any Israeli casualties.

Israel has been carrying out almost nightly arrest raids in Palestinian cities and towns, but the operation in Rafah appeared to be on a much larger scale.

In political developments, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remained at odds with his hand-picked prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, over the formation of a new government.

Arafat led a meeting of the central committee of his Fatah movement yesterday in an attempt to resolve the impasse, but Abbas attended only briefly before storming out, Palestinians said.

Arafat, the pre-eminent Palestinian leader for more than three decades, reluctantly agreed to the creation of the prime minister's position under international pressure and demands by Palestinian reformers who felt that he had too much power. But Arafat has been resisting efforts by Abbas to oust or sideline a number of longtime Arafat loyalists.

Abbas has been trying to put together a Cabinet for the past month, and faces a Wednesday deadline.

The stalemate between Abbas and Arafat is delaying the formal presentation of a new Middle East peace plan, known as the "road map," which the Bush administration says will be introduced as soon as a new Palestinian government is in place.

Abbas' difficulty in forming a government is raising questions about how much authority he will have on peace negotiations and other major issues. Arafat has insisted on having the final say in any negotiations with Israel, though Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government has been boycotting Arafat for well over a year.

Nazeh Darwazeh, 43, a Palestinian cameraman for Associated Press Television News, was hit by a bullet above the right eye while filming a clash between the army and Palestinians, witnesses said. He was the fourth journalist killed in the West Bank in just over a year.

The Associated Press quoted two Palestinian cameramen at the scene, Hassan Titi, with Reuters, and Sami al-Assi, who works with a Palestinian station, as saying the soldier aimed at the journalists.

The shooting occurred as army troops were leaving Nablus after arresting two Palestinian women, one of whom was believed to be a potential suicide bomber, and the other her recruiter, said Maj. Sharon Feingold, an army spokeswoman.

As the troops were pulling out, a tank hit a curb and became stuck, and large numbers of Palestinians began throwing stones and firebombs, with some firing guns at the stranded vehicle, she said.

When Israeli troops responded by firing rifles, the youths ran for cover in the alleys and narrow side streets.

Video footage taken by Reuters shows a soldier kneeling beside the tank and pointing a rifle down the alley where the journalists were wearing fluorescent-green bulletproof vests that read "Press." A moment later, Darwazeh was hit and fell to the ground.

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