Tue, Mar 09, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Pitched battle in Gaza leaves 14 dead

CIRCLE OF DEATH Israel killed 14 Palestinians in the deadliest raid in months, while the militant group Hamas vowed to take revenge for the killings

AP , GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP

A Palestinian woman stands in front of an Israeli army bulldozer working on a section of the separation barrier Israel is building to separate the West Bank from Israel, near the village of Beit Dukou, some 10km northwest of Jerusalem on Sunday. Dozens of demonstrators clashed with troops as they tried to stop work on the barrier Israel says is needed to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel but Palestinians and human rights organizations say is a land grab as in some parts dips as much as 4km into the West Bank.

PHOTO: AP

Hamas threatened revenge yesterday, after 14 Palestinians were killed in the deadliest Israeli raid in Gaza in 17 months -- part of an upsurge in bloodshed linked to a proposed Israeli withdrawal from the coastal strip.

Among the dead were 11 militants and three boys between the ages of 8 and 15, and 81 people were wounded. The fighting near the Bureij refugee camp Sunday pitted hundreds of Palestinians with assault rifles, anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers against Israeli snipers and troops firing from helicopters and tanks.

In new fighting yesterday, a 16-year-old Palestinian was killed by army fire.

The spike of violence in Gaza -- two recent Israeli air strikes and a complex attack on an Israeli army post by militants -- has come weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would withdraw from most of the strip if peace efforts remain stuck.

Each side now seems to be positioning itself to claim a withdrawal as a victory -- Israel by pounding the militants hard before a pullout, and the armed groups by stepping up attacks to create the impression they are chasing the Israelis out.

Sunday's raid of the Bureij camp appeared mainly aimed at drawing out militants; troops found no weapons and made no arrests.

Alon Ben-David, military commentator for Israel TV's Channel 10, said the purpose of such raids is to "kill as many armed Palestinians as possible."

"It's a ritual in which everything is pre-planned. The army goes in, stations its snipers, then a convoy of armored vehicles moves in," Ben-David told Israel Army Radio. "The Palestinians don't see the snipers, they begin to fire on armored vehicles, and then they get hit."

Israeli military officials said the raid was meant to put the militants on the defensive and prevent them from carrying out attacks on Israelis. However, the Gaza Strip is fenced in, and no Palestinian from Gaza has managed to sneak out and carry out a suicide bombing in Israel in 41 months of fighting.

The only exception came in April 2003 when two British Muslims, who were given their instructions and explosives in Gaza, crossed into Israel and blew themselves up in a Tel Aviv pub, killing three Israelis and wounding 50.

The Islamic militant group Hamas yesterday belatedly claimed responsibility for that attack, after initially denying involvement, presumably to signal to Israel that despite logistical problems, it could launch bombings from Gaza.

Hamas said the pub bombing was a message to Israel that the group "has many options to fight against you as long as you are occupying your land and committing massacres against our people."

Sunday's army raid prompted some debate among the armed groups on whether to continue engaging the Israelis despite their superior firepower.

In the event of an incursion, mosque loudspeakers routinely broadcast calls to gunmen to confront Israeli troops, and Sunday was no exception, with hundreds of armed men rushing to the edge of the Bureij camp. Eleven of the 14 killed were gunmen, including nine from Hamas.

Mohammed al-Hindi, a leader of the Islamic Jihad group, said it was time to change tactics.

"The Palestinian people are now uniting in the trenches of resistance, but we also call on the sons of the resistance not to be dragged into battles forced upon us by the [Israeli] occupation," al-Hindi said.

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