Raids on Gaza camps kill 14, injure 80

Palestinians say Israel is escalating hostilities

March 08, 2004|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Palestinian leaders accused Israel of escalating hostilities yesterday after a military raid on two densely populated refugee camps in the Gaza Strip that killed at least 14 Palestinians and injured about 80 others during fierce street fighting.

Among the dead were four bystanders, including boys ages 8, 12 and 15, according to Palestinian officials at Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir el-Balah. Dozens of children were among the wounded, the officials said.

The Israeli raid - the latest episode in a flurry of violence in the Gaza Strip - comes as Israel is weighing whether to uproot nearly two dozen Jewish settlements there that sit amid a Palestinian population of 1.3 million people.

"At a time when they're talking about withdrawing from Gaza, they're literally destroying it," said Saeb Ereket, a Palestinian Cabinet member. "It's a major escalation. It's very dangerous."

Israel said yesterday's operation, launched in the central Gaza Strip before dawn, targeted militant cells based in the Bureij and Nusseirat refugee camps. The soldiers were hunting for fighters and weapons, including mortars, bombs and anti-tank missiles that have been used in strikes against two Jewish settlements nearby in recent months, the military said.

Troops, accompanied by armored vehicles and helicopter gunships, entered the camps but quickly met fierce resistance, according to an army spokeswoman, Maj. Sharon Feingold.

Israeli soldiers returned fire during the eight-hour operation, striking several people - all of them armed, she said.

"We only targeted Palestinian gunmen who shot at our forces or presented an immediate threat," she said. She said the Palestinian fighters endangered noncombatants by taking cover among civilians and ambulance crews in the densely populated neighborhood.

Militant groups said 10 of the Palestinian dead were fighters, all but one of them members of Hamas.

During the fighting, youngsters raced into the streets. Some threw stones at the tanks and soldiers, witnesses said. The soldiers withdrew by late morning without making arrests.

During funeral processions in the two refugee camps yesterday afternoon, masked gunmen fired weapons into the air, vowing to retaliate.

The Israeli raid came a day after a failed Palestinian suicide strike at the main crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel killed four attackers and two Palestinian police officers and injured 19 Palestinian bystanders.

Three militant groups - Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade - claimed joint responsibility for the attempted attack.

Last week, two Israeli airstrikes killed six Palestinian militants after an Israeli soldier was killed in an ambush by two Palestinian gunmen at the Erez crossing. The gunmen were shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

In January, a female suicide bomber detonated explosives inside the Erez crossing terminal, killing three Israeli soldiers and a security guard.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal to withdraw from Gaza Strip settlements - a move that may be many months away - outraged the Israeli right wing and spurred warnings that Palestinian extremist groups might increase attacks to appear victorious.

The Palestinian Cabinet appealed for help from the so-called quartet - the United States, Russia, United Nations and European Union - that sponsored the diplomatic initiative known as the "road map" to peace. The plan has stalled since it was proposed last year.

"The Cabinet notices an absence of any intervention from the quartet, particularly the U.S., to put a stop to the Israeli aggression and provide protection to our people," according to a statement released yesterday.

Raanan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman, said the raid was part of Israel's "sustained operations" and was not tied to the proposed Gaza pullout. "We are not going to disengage in any way from fighting terrorists," Gissin said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah contributed to this report from Gaza City.

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