Three Palestinians, including a senior field commander of the Islamic group Hamas, were killed and 10 wounded during an exchange of fire between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers in southern areas of Gaza yesterday, Palestinian doctors and witnesses said.
For more than a week, Israeli troops backed by attack helicopters and tanks have fought pitched battles with Palestinian gunmen in an operation meant to search out and destroy tunnels used by Palestinians to smuggle weapons across the Egyptian border into southern Gaza.
So far, 14 Palestinians -- among them two children and a woman bystander -- have been killed since the operation began a week ago in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, and troops have uncovered and blown up three smuggling tunnels.
In yesterday's fighting, troops fired on a group of armed Hamas militants laying explosives along paths used by Israeli tanks in the Salam neighborhood of the Rafah refugee camp, the army and Hamas members said.
One of those killed was Tariq Abu Hussein, 39, a well-known local field commander of the Hamas military wing. Two others killed were a woman bystander, Widad Jirami, 28, and her brother-in-law Hussam Mughier, 26, who also has ties to the militant group. The two came to help several wounded people near their house, witnesses said, when a tank shell was fired toward them. The woman's husband was also critically injured.
An army spokeswoman said soldiers only shot at armed men and denied reports that troops fired tank shells.
Also, in the West Bank city of Nablus, three Palestinian militants were wounded by gunfire, and Palestinians said the men clashed with Israeli troops during an arrest raid in the Balata refugee camp. The military said it fired on a Palestinian throwing a fire bomb, and in a separate incident in the camp arrested a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militant group with ties to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.
Israel's military has said it launched its new Gaza operation -- the biggest in the coastal strip of territory in about six months -- after it received intelligence warnings that Palestinians might be trying to smuggle more advanced weapons, like anti-aircraft missiles, through the cross-border tunnels.
Until now, the tunnels have been used to smuggle lighter weapons, like assault rifles and ammunition, from Egypt, the army says.
Meanwhile, on Friday, the US embassy in Israel halted travel by American officials to the Gaza Strip and said it is reviewing security arrangements in response to a deadly attack on a US convoy earlier this week.
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