Israeli aircraft killed a top Hamas rocketmaker in a missile strike on his minivan yesterday, as huge army bulldozers began demolishing homes in a northern Gaza town on the fourth day of an Israeli offensive against Palestinian rocket squads.
Four more people were killed in separate incidents, according to Palestinian reports, including a civilian buried under the rubble of his small home brought down by a tank shell. The others were Hamas gunmen -- one killed by an army sniper, one by a tank shell, and the third shot dead in a gun battle with troops near a building used by Israeli forces.
Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida said Hamas gunmen had attacked the building with explosives and rockets. Witnesses said they saw two Israelis being evacuated on stretchers, after a helicopter landed in an open area near the house.
The army declined comment on these incidents, and the reports of house demolitions.
Yesterday's deaths brought to 39 the number of Palestinians killed in the military's campaign against the town of Beit Hanoun, on the border with Israel. More than 200 people have been wounded in the sweep so far, including 29 who are in critical condition, Palestinian health officials said.
The army says Beit Hanoun was targeted as a major launching ground for rockets on Israeli communities near Gaza.
Since taking over Beit Hanoun on Wednesday, troops have conducted house-to-house searches, sometimes breaking through inner walls, posted snipers on roofs and rounded up hundreds of men for questioning, releasing most of them later. Since nightfall on Friday, aircraft have struck a dozen times, targeting militants laying explosives or preparing rockets.
Early yesterday, a missile fired from the air hit a minivan carrying Hamas activists. The strike killed Louay al-Borno, a top Hamas rocket maker, and severed the legs of two other passengers, wounding them critically, members of the group said. The van burst into flames.
Army bulldozers, meanwhile, began demolishing homes near a Beit Hanoun mosque that had been the scene of a deadly standoff between troops and gunmen the day before. The huge D9 bulldozers demolished at least five houses near the mosque, and residents were given no warning, their neighbors said.
"It [the bulldozer] was moving in the dark like a big dinosaur," Fayez Abu Harbid, 29, a school teacher from Beit Hanoun, said by telephone.
Detailed description of the events was difficult to obtain, because most residents said they stay clear of windows for fear of army snipers posted around them.
Atef Adwan, minister of refugee affairs in the Hamas government, told a local Hamas radio station that Israeli forces had taken over the rooftop of his Beit Hanoun home and posted snipers there. He said he and his family fled to a neighbor's house.
By mid-morning, soldiers announced over loudspeakers that women were permitted to leave their homes for two hours to stock up on supplies.
However, few shops were open, said resident Samia Adwan, 35, a secretary in the Palestinian Authority and a distant relative of the Hamas minister.
She said she saw outer walls destroyed by bulldozers, streets carved up by tanks, and dangling electricity wires.
A senior Israeli military official confirmed that the Beit Hanoun sweep was different from previous Israeli incursions into Gaza, which resumed in June, after the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas militants. In the past, troops would largely stay on the outskirts of populated areas, instead of going house-to-house, like in Beit Hanoun, he said.