20 Palestinians die in south Gaza Strip

Israeli forces continue offensive on militants in Rafah refugee camp, town

May 19, 2004|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships battled militants in the southern Gaza Strip yesterday, killing at least 20 Palestinians as Israel continued its biggest offensive in the seaside strip during more than 3 1/2 years of conflict.

Israeli officials said the daylong incursion, beginning with a flurry of pre-dawn air attacks and skirmishing that resulted in half of the deaths, was an attempt to confront militants and stanch weapons smuggling along the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt. That area has seen frequent, though smaller-scale, skirmishing between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers.

Israeli officials say cross-border tunnels to the Rafah refugee camp near where the fighting took place are a pipeline for explosives and weapons destined for militants in Gaza.

Palestinian leaders charged that the raid, in the Tel al-Sultan neighborhood outside the Rafah camp, could trigger a humanitarian crisis. They appealed to the international community for help.

"What is going on in Rafah is a series of inhumane crimes and criminal acts against Palestinian civilians and their property," Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia charged in a written statement.

In defending yesterday's strike, dubbed "Operation Rainbow," the Israeli army's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, said past incursions failed to stem the flow of rocket-propelled grenades and launchers. Israel also could face a more serious threat posed by longer-range rockets, he said.

"After we tried to convince the Palestinian authorities to put an end to this, we have recently been forced to stop this ourselves," Yaalon told reporters. "Those who prefer the smuggling of weapons over the lives of the population along the Israel-Egypt border are the Palestinians, and therefore we are forced to take the actions we are presently taking."

Israeli officials said the incursion, which left more than 40 Palestinians wounded, wasn't linked to the killings of 13 Israeli soldiers last week by militants in the Gaza Strip. There were no Israeli casualties reported in the latest fighting.

Israeli troops, supported by tanks and aircraft, placed a tight cordon around the Rafah refugee camp and a neighboring town of the same name. The ring effectively sealed off the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, making passage in and out of the area difficult.

Palestinian ambulance crews reported that fighting made it harder to get to the wounded, and Physicians for Human Rights said the road closures barred medics from moving the wounded to a better-equipped hospital in the nearby town of Khan Younis.

Israeli military officials said they were trying to allow ambulances to pass, but sporadic shooting was causing delays.

Among the dead were 14-year-old Asmaa Moghayer and her 11-year-old brother, Ahmed, who were shot when they climbed onto the roof of their home to collect laundry.

Monday, hundreds of Palestinians fled their homes, fearing an Israeli attack and destruction of houses along a road next to the Egyptian border.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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