Israel broadens offensive in Gaza

5 Palestinian fighters are killed

3 civilians, including teenage girl, die

November 05, 2006|By Richard Boudreaux and Rushdi abu Alouf | Richard Boudreaux and Rushdi abu Alouf,Los Angeles Times

GAZA CITY, West Bank -- Israeli forces widened their four-day-old offensive in the Gaza Strip yesterday, killing five Palestinian fighters and three civilians, including a 13-year-old girl hit by a sniper bullet fired into her home.

Moving five miles south of their initial targets in the town of Beit Hanoun, Israeli troops and tanks fought for four hours against gunmen near Jabalya. Four men from the armed wing of Hamas, the Islamic movement that governs the Palestinian territories, were killed in the battle, Palestinian officials said.

Louay Borno, identified by Hamas as one of its leading rocket makers, died in an airstrike aimed at his minivan near Gaza City.

At least 32 Palestinian combatants, 11 Palestinian civilians and one Israeli soldier have been killed since the Israeli army crossed into Gaza on Wednesday and seized Beit Hanoun. Israeli officials say they are trying to root out stockpiles of crude Kassam rockets and the men who fire them almost daily into southern Israel, largely from the town just across the border. The operation has widened across northern Gaza as Palestinian rocket-launching teams and other fighters flee the besieged town and continue to fire rockets.

On Friday, as many as 73 fighters holed up in a mosque there escaped an Israeli encirclement with the help of about 200 women who swarmed past troops and tanks to serve as human shields.

Yesterday, an Israeli tank in the town destroyed the home of a senior militant who had left. The shelling knocked down a wall of a neighboring house, killing Marwan abu Harbid, a 48-year-old father of seven who was playing cards with his cousin, relatives said.

Palestinian medical workers said a sniper bullet fired into another home in Beit Hanoun after dark struck Walla Nasir, 13, in the head.

The Israeli military expressed regret, saying the sniper was aiming at a Palestinian fighter and killed the girl by mistake. Yousri Masri, the Palestinian ambulance driver who reached the house, said the girl's family denied that any fighter had been in the house.

A 24-year-old noncombatant wounded Friday in an airstrike on nearby Beit Lahiya died yesterday, Palestinian hospital workers said.

Israel has come under international criticism for the operation, which has subjected homes to searches or demolition, forced most of Beit Hanoun's 37,000 people to stay indoors, and obliged nearly every unarmed male resident of the town to undergo interrogation at a soccer field. Most of the detainees have been released.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan voiced concern at the escalation of violence and rising death toll and urged Israel "to exercise maximum restraint, do their utmost to protect civilians and to refrain from further escalating an already grave situation."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appealed for U.N. Security Council intervention to restrain Israel.

The operation is Israel's first takeover of an entire town in Gaza since the unilateral withdrawal of its troops and settlers from the coastal territory in September last year. Israeli forces have been making limited incursions into Gaza since late June after the capture of an Israeli soldier who was taken into Gaza and is still missing.

Despite the Israeli pressure, Kassam rockets fired from elsewhere in Gaza continued to fall on Israel last week, causing scattered property damage and several injuries.

Richard Boudreaux and Rushdi abu Alouf write for the Los Angeles Times.

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