Gaza offensive widens

At least 21 Palestinians, Israeli soldier die in clashes

July 07, 2006|By KEN ELLINGWOOD AND LAURA KING | KEN ELLINGWOOD AND LAURA KING,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip -- The din of machine guns and tank fire rattled through the narrow lanes of this farming village yesterday as Israeli troops pushed into populated areas for the first time since mounting an offensive in the Gaza Strip last week.

At least 21 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed yesterday during clashes reminiscent of the street fighting that broke out regularly during the years before Israel withdrew Jewish settlers and soldiers from the territory last summer. Dozens of Palestinians and two soldiers were wounded.

The soldier's death was the first Israeli combat fatality of the nine-day-old incursion, which was launched after Palestinian militants captured another soldier in a cross-border raid.

Amid the thunder of Israeli tank shells and circling attack helicopters, masked gunmen wired bombs in the streets in preparation for an Israeli move deeper into Beit Lahiya, whose sparsely populated outskirts are frequently used by militants to launch Kassam rockets into southern Israel.

Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers and bulldozers were operating in the village's rundown Atatra neighborhood, tearing up streets and knocking down trees. Palestinian boys played cat and mouse with the Israeli tanks by hurling stones, then fleeing.

Until now, Israel's incursion had consisted mainly of airstrikes on installations such as the territory's power plant, artillery fire into open areas, and deployment of troops and armor away from densely packed slums and refugee camps.

Though Defense Minister Amir Peretz vowed that Israel's military would not become bogged down in the "swamp" of Gaza, yesterday's developments represented a significant escalation in an offensive that many Israeli officials hope will result in the fall of the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

Israel increased pressure on Hamas yesterday with the arrests in East Jerusalem of five senior members of the Islamist group's political wing. Israeli police accused them of assisting Hamas lawmakers in activities on behalf of the group.

Sixty-five Hamas officials, including eight Cabinet ministers and 20 members of the Palestinian parliament, were arrested in raids last week in the West Bank. The detentions of five, including that of a lawmaker, were extended yesterday by a military court.

In the past week, Israel has destroyed the Palestinian Interior Ministry in Gaza, bombarded the office of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and threatened to assassinate senior Hamas figures.

Yesterday, for the first time, a top official in the Hamas-led government urged members of the Palestinian security forces to fight alongside the militants.

"We believe that the responsibility is collective and all our Palestinian people in all their positions must participate in their duty of defending our nation," said Khaled abu Hilal, a spokesman for Palestinian Interior Minister Said Siyam.

The day's confrontation began before dawn when Israeli forces moved into three former Jewish settlements abandoned last summer. The sites form a belt along the border with Israel. As Israeli troops pushed deeper into northern Gaza, fierce firefights broke out and flared throughout the day, terrifying civilians who huddled inside their homes.

One of those killed in Beit Lahiya was 23-year-old Mohammed Atar, a farmer who was having coffee in his living room when an Israeli tank shell struck, followed by a burst of machine-gun fire, family members said.

"During this shooting my nephew said, `Uncle, save me,' and then I saw a bullet coming out of his chest," said Abdel Hadi Atar, 34, his blue shirt caked with blood as he recounted the incident hours later at a Beit Lahiya hospital. "Bullets were entering through the windows, a lot."

He said it took two hours to gain permission for a Palestinian ambulance to enter the neighborhood. By then, he said, his nephew was dying.

The Israeli incursion is part of an effort to keep Palestinian militants from firing homemade Kassam rockets into Israel by creating a buffer along the northern fringe of the Gaza Strip. The goal took on greater urgency for Israelis after Palestinian militants demonstrated that they had developed rockets capable of striking the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, seven miles to the north.

The rocket strikes Tuesday and Wednesday in the city, while causing no serious injuries, stoked fears in Israel that Ashkelon's 110,000 residents would become the new primary target of Palestinian militants. Until now, primitive rockets have struck mainly at a handful of small towns near the Gaza Strip, usually without causing injuries.

Before the drive into Beit Lahiya, Israeli officials promised what they described as a gradual intensification of the military response after militants tunneled under the border fence in southern Gaza on June 25 and killed two soldiers. The militants abducted Cpl. Gilad Shalit and took him back into Gaza, sparking a standoff that has grown increasingly tense.

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