- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

At least 12 Palestinians were killed and several structures destroyed in Gaza City during a predawn raid Wednesday by Israeli troops, dozens of tanks and attack helicopters.

Moawyea Hassanein, chief of emergency at Shiffa Hospital said more than 40 others were wounded during the seven-hour incursion by the Israeli army forces into the northern and eastern neighborhoods of the city. Palestinian security sources said the operation apparently targeted metal workshops in the Tufah neighborhood in the northern section of Gaza City.

Israeli military sources confirmed the workshops as targets, saying they contained and troops destroyed 32 machines that Palestinian militants used to manufacture mortar bombs and Qassam rockets.

The commander of the Givati infantry brigade, Col. Imad Fares, described Gaza's eastern Sajaeya neighborhood as "a Hamas stronghold."

The raiders hit "terrorist infrastructure which is blooming in Gaza, especially that of Hamas, a notorious terrorist organization responsible for some of the more horrendous terrorist bombings," added an Israel Defense Force spokeswoman, Capt. Sharon Feingold.

Israel has been carrying out widespread military operations since an attack on an Israeli tank Saturday resulted in the deaths of four soldiers. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the Israeli army will escalate its activities against Hamas, which carried out the tank attack, in the Gaza Strip.

A senior military source in Israel's Southern Command told United Press International that after attacks such as Saturday's, "We have more freedom of action from the political echelon. They approve things they do not otherwise approve."

The source said the recent Israeli strikes in Gaza "do not reflect a new policy but a stronger desire, following the political echelon's directives, to act against Hamas in sharper and more absolute manner."

The high number of Palestinian casualties as well as Israeli military and Gaza witness accounts indicate the fighting there was intensive.

An IDF statement said Palestinian militants hurled hand grenades and shot weapons at the troops "from several civilian structures." The soldiers returned fire "and identified several hits," which explains some of the rubble they left behind.

Three hand grenades were hurled at the soldiers from a mosque but the soldiers did not return fire there, the IDF statement added.

The IDF reports emphasized "civilian structures" because many casualties on both sides of the 28-month-old intifada, or uprising, have been civilians — Israelis because Palestinian suicide bombers target markets and transportation, and Palestinians because Israelis say it is often difficult to distinguish between militants and civilians during firefights and because militants often fire from and hide in houses and other civilian buildings. Palestinians say Israeli forces have targeted obvious civilians such as mothers, the elderly and children deliberately.

Gaza residents Wednesday also accused Israeli soldiers of preventing Palestinian medical teams from reaching casualties in the area of the incursion.

Shortly after the raid ended Izel Dein Al Qassam, the armed wing of Islamic Hamas, distributed a leaflet that said one of the dead was a 22-year-old militant who blew himself up under an Israeli tank in Shejaeya.

Israeli military sources denied the report, adding that no one in the three infantry and one armored battalions were injured or killed. The troops withdrew after the raid.

The Israeli government decided several months ago to destroy the houses of militants who are involved in carrying out attacks against Israel and to destroy metal factories and workshops that manufacture arms.

Brig. Gen. Abdel Razeq Al-Majayda, Gaza security chief, told United Press International that the raids into Shejaeya and Tufah was to destroy houses of Palestinian militants and metal workshops.

"We tell the Israeli leaders that they would never break our people's determination to live free on their lands, and these operations are aiming at destroying our infrastructure," said Al-Majayda.


(Saud Abu Ramadan reported from Gaza and Joshua Brilliant from Tel Aviv, Israel.)

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