Friday, October 01, 2004
The sun sets as Israeli army soldiers stand on top of military vehicles just outside the Gaza Strip, Thursday. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - Armoured vehicles massed on Gaza's border Friday after Israel's security cabinet approved a large-scale military operation - dubbed Days of Penitence - to stop Palestinian rocket fire.
Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz had ordered troops to "exact a price" from the militants, security officials said, after a Hamas rocket killed two children, ages two and four, in an Israeli border town.
The cabinet approved the offensive late Thursday, at the end of a day of heavy fighting between troops and Palestinian gunmen in the Jebaliya refugee camp, the Palestinians' largest and most densely populated.
With 28 Palestinians killed and 139 wounded Thursday, most of them in Jebaliya, it was the highest single-day toll in fighting in 30 months.
Three more Palestinians were killed Friday when an Israeli tank fired a shell in the market area of the camp, hospital official said. The dead were in their 20s, according to doctors at the camp's Kamal Adwan Hospital. Five others were wounded, two of them seriously.
The Israeli army had no immediate comment.
In bloodshed elsewhere in Gaza Thursday, two Israeli soldiers and a settler were killed by Palestinian fire.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the security cabinet that he was determined to stop the rocket fire, but stopped short of calling up reserves. Israeli officials said the operation would be open-ended.
"What can we do," a participant quoted Sharon as saying. "The Jews, too, have a right to live."
On Friday morning, some 200 tanks, armoured personnel carriers and bulldozers assembled along Israel's border north and east of Gaza.Troops were setting up makeshift camps, apparently in preparation for an extended operation. Some officers were going over maps.
Thursday's battle in Jebaliya pitted hundreds of gunmen with homemade rockets and assault rifles against the mightiest army in the Middle East, at first glance a hugely lopsided fight.
However, in four years of conflict, Israeli troops had never before struck deep inside the camp for fear of getting bogged down in urban combat.
The fight over control of Jebaliya, the birthplace of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, could take on great symbolic value.
Militants have been stepping up attacks on Israelis in recent months, in hopes of portraying Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 as a retreat under fire. The army has been pounding the militants in intensifying strikes, to deny them such claims.
After a relatively quiet night, gunmen were taking up positions in Jebaliya alleys Friday. In one incident, two Hamas militants were killed by an Israeli missile as they tried to fire a homemade Qassam rocket, the army said.
Nizar Rayan, the top Hamas leader in northern Gaza, encouraged the gunmen and gave them tips in a message broadcast in mosques and on a local radio station late Thursday.
Rayan said gunmen should not remain in one place for more than three minutes, to avoid being spotted, and talk on their cell phones only when absolutely necessary. The militants, who were moving in small groups of no more than seven, communicated largely through SMS messages.
Militants followed one of Rayan's tips immediately - to reduce visibility by burning tires and filling the air with black smoke, thus making it harder for Israeli unmanned aircraft, or drones, to spot them.
Hospital officials, meanwhile, said all seven Palestinians killed Thursday by an Israeli tank shell were boys between the ages of 13 and 17.
The army had said the tank fired the shell at a group of gunmen near Jebaliya's market, after they threw explosives at an armoured vehicle.
Twenty-three Palestinians were wounded by the tank shell, including many who lost limbs, and at least four of the wounded were under the age of 14, doctors said.
Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel, the army commander in Gaza, said Thursday that "we are very sorry that civilians are being hurt," but also accused gunmen of using civilians as a shield.
Palestinian militants have fired hundreds of rockets and mortar shells at Gaza settlements and Israeli border towns since 2000. Most attacks caused damage and minor injuries.
There have been two deadly strikes, including Wednesday's hit on the border town of Sderot that killed two children as they played on the sidewalk in a quiet neighbourhood at the onset of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
Continued rocket fire could turn public opinion against Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza. His opponents argue that a withdrawal would only encourage Palestinian militants to stage more attacks.
© The Canadian Press 2004