Israelis find arms-smuggling tunnel

8 Palestinians die in raid, gunfights in refugee camp at Rafah, on Egypt border

December 24, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JERUSALEM - Israeli troops killed eight Palestinians, both militants and civilians, as tanks and armored vehicles charged into a refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip early yesterday and uncovered a weapons-smuggling tunnel, according to officials on both sides.

Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen clash frequently in the town of Rafah, but yesterday's violence left the highest one-day death toll in Gaza in the past two months, which had been comparatively calm.

The Israeli raid came hours after two Israeli Army officers were killed by Palestinian attackers Monday night on a road in southern Gaza. Their two Palestinian assailants were also killed. That gunbattle took place less than 10 miles from Rafah, at the southern end of Gaza, on the border with Egypt.

Top officials meet

The latest fighting also came a day after Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel as part of broader efforts to work out a cease-fire and revive a top-level dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

"The attack in Rafah is blatant aggression and a crime," said Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister.

Israel said it would press ahead with such operations because the Palestinian leadership has not acted to stop Palestinian groups responsible for violence against Israel. The military said yesterday's incursion located its target: a large smuggling tunnel with an entrance hidden in a three-story house.

The tunnel acted "as an oxygen pipe for terrorist organizations operating in the area," said Col. Pinky Zuaretz, the Israeli Army commander for the area.

The tunnel was used to bring in weapons from neighboring Egypt, and it allowed wanted Palestinians to flee to Egypt temporarily, Zuaretz told Israel Radio. An additional five to 10 tunnels were believed to be in the area, he said.

Before dawn, several dozen tanks, jeeps and armored vehicles roared into Rafah's densely packed refugee camp and, as is typically the case, Palestinian gunmen soon opened fire.

In intermittent gunbattles that lasted through the night and much of the day, Israeli forces identified hitting eight Palestinians armed with guns or explosives, the military reported. However, the military said it did not have information on whether they were killed.

Three militants taking cover in one house were killed, along with a policeman who was fatally shot while on his way to work, according to Palestinians.

Ali al-Najar, one of the gunmen killed, heard the Israeli tanks and immediately rushed out of his home to fight, said his father, Hussein al-Najar.

Ali al-Najar and two fellow militants were preparing their weapons in another house when it was hit by an Israeli shell, killing all of them, said the father.

Dead include civilians

But Palestinians said several of those killed were civilians, including Weam Musa, 27, a medic who was hit by shrapnel while helping treat the wounded, according to his cousin, Dr. Ali Musa, the director of Rafah Hospital.

Overall, eight Palestinians were killed and about 40 wounded, with women and children accounting for several of those injured, said Musa.

Several Palestinian houses were destroyed and Israeli troops commandeered several tall buildings as lookout posts, Palestinian witnesses said.

Palestinian gunmen maintained a steady barrage of fire in an attempt to prevent the Israeli armored vehicles from reaching the house with the tunnel, the military said. But the soldiers eventually made it into the house and found the tunnel in the afternoon, about 12 hours after the operation began.

The tunnel descends about 40 feet underground and was among the largest of more than 40 tunnels the military has uncovered this year in Rafah, the military said.

The passageways connect houses on the Gaza side of the border with those on the Egyptian side.

Smugglers have used the tunnels for years to bring in assorted contraband, but Israel has aggressively targeted them during the current round of Mideast fighting, saying large quantities of weapons are now being imported from the Egyptian side.

In another development yesterday, Israel said it had arrested 22 members of the Hamas faction in and around the West Bank city of Ramallah over the past few days.

Those arrested were suspected of involvement in attacks that have killed 10 Israelis, the military said.

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