Israeli forces push offensive to root out rockets in Gaza

At least 6 Palestinians die in refugee camp, villages

October 04, 2004|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Israeli forces consolidated their hold on a swath of the northern Gaza Strip as at least six Palestinians died during fighting yesterday around the crowded Jabaliya refugee camp and two nearby villages reportedly used by militants for launching rockets.

More than 2,000 Israeli soldiers, backed by dozens of tanks and armored vehicles, ringed the three communities as the incursion -- one of Israel's biggest in Gaza in four years of conflict -- continued for a fifth day.

A Palestinian fighter was killed in the village of Beit Hanoun when an Israeli helicopter fired on a group of militants who launched a Kassam rocket into Israel from a donkey cart, Israeli officials and witnesses said. The cart was loaded with other rockets when it was blown up, an army spokesman said.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said two Palestinians were killed in an airstrike in Jabaliya, and three others died in separate incidents. Palestinian hospital officials said Israeli forces killed a Palestinian who was deaf and mute as he looked out the window of his home. Israeli military sources said soldiers shot at a "suspicious figure" who appeared to have been monitoring their movements.

No Israeli casualties were reported in yesterday's fighting.

The latest fatalities brought to nearly 60 the number of Palestinians, including civilians, killed since Wednesday. Israel launched its raid to stop Palestinian militants from launching crude Kassam rockets over the border into Israel.

The projectiles have been notoriously inaccurate, but rocket attacks have killed four civilians in the southern Israeli city of Sederot since June, including an assault Wednesday that killed two young children.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered his generals to find ways to stop such attacks, including an offensive to push the weapons out of range of Israeli homes.

Sharon and other leaders describe the operation as open-ended, vowing to halt the rocket assaults before he implements his plan to pull out of Gaza by the end of next year. That plan calls for the removal of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank.

"We need to operate in the Gaza Strip in a way that will prevent communities from being shelled, both at present and during the evacuation," Sharon said in an interview published yesterday in the daily Maariv.

It is rare for Israeli forces to carry out large-scale raids inside the Jabaliya camp, a community of 100,000 that is a stronghold for Palestinian militant groups. It was unclear how many of the dead were civilians. Israel said most were militants. Palestinian militant groups have said that half or fewer were fighters.

Palestinian political leaders and medical officials in Gaza say many of the dead and injured suffered shrapnel-type wounds that suggested Israeli tanks were firing anti-personnel shells. Maj. Sharon Feingold, an Israeli army spokeswoman, said the military does not discuss the types of munitions it uses.

Israeli officials accused Palestinian fighters of taking cover behind civilians.

Israeli armored vehicles have demolished dozens of houses, flattened trees and plowed under crops, Palestinians say. Israeli officials said many of the sites were being used as launching pads and hide-outs for gunmen, while other buildings were damaged as tanks and bulldozers made their way along the camp's narrow lanes.

Independent verification is difficult because journalists have been prevented from entering Gaza due to Israel's closure of the Erez border crossing.

Palestinian residents said thousands of people were without electricity and water for days, and many remained indoors because fighting made it unsafe to venture out.

"We cannot get out of the house because the tanks are just 15 meters from where we are, and if anyone in the neighborhood tries to get out, he will be shot at," said Mohammad al Kahlout, who spoke by telephone from Jabaliya.

Israel and a United Nations agency in the Gaza Strip bickered over Israeli government allegations that U.N. ambulances were being used by Palestinian fighters to transport weapons.

The Israeli government is distributing video footage that it says shows men loading a Kassam rocket into an ambulance bearing U.N. markings. Officials say the clip, shot from some distance overhead, is proof that the U.N. Relief and Work Agency, which provides food and other aid to Palestinians in Gaza, has helped militants.

Israeli officials reportedly planned to seek the removal of the agency's commissioner-general, Peter Hansen.

Hansen denied the charge, saying the object carried by the figure in the video did not appear heavy enough to be a Kassam rocket and was probably a stretcher. Hansen said the agency had interviewed its ambulance drivers and was confident they were acting properly.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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