- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

GAZA, Jan. 26 (UPI) — Twelve Palestinians reportedly were killed Sunday and 45 were injured in clashes with Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopters in Gaza City.

The widespread military operation was carried out in the city's southern neighborhood of Zaytoon.

Medical sources at Gaza City's Shiffa Hospital said most of the dead and wounded were civilians but an Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman said the 12 dead were "armed Palestinians killed as result of exchanges of fire."

Palestinian sources confirmed heavy fighting had taken place.

Israeli security sources identified one of the dead as Islamic Jihad activist Rami Fathi Hassan Issa, 28, who they said took part in firing mortar bombs and laying explosive charges. He also had helped recruit and train suicide bombers, security sources said.

Dozens of tanks, armored vehicles and bulldozers, supported by attack helicopters, stormed the neighborhood in southern Gaza City and started operations in the most tense and over-populated area in the Gaza Strip.

The army dynamited three houses that belong to families of militants, members of the Islamic resistance movement Hamas who were killed while they allegedly were carrying out attacks against Israel.

The army also blew up at least 20 industrial establishments, garages and metal workshops in the neighborhood on the grounds they were used to manufacture rockets and bombs.

Palestinian witnesses said the army destroyed two factories, adding the shells fired from tanks had burned most of the stores in the main public market in the city's downtown.

IDF spokeswoman Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron said the troops destroyed more than 100 lathes "where various armaments, including Qassam rockets and mortar bombs, were produced."

The Israeli operation was confronted by Palestinian armed resistance, with Palestinian militants using light machine guns, grenades and roadside bombs. Armed groups said their men had destroyed two Israeli army tanks, and witnesses said they saw Israeli army ambulances are carrying wounded soldiers.

The Israeli army confirmed its troops had come under "massive fire" that included various anti-tank rockets and dozens of explosive charges. Soldiers returned fire to armed militants but sustained no casualties and later left the area, the army reported.

Israel has built a fence around the Gaza Strip and has succeeded in preventing cross-border incursions. In recent days, however, the number of cross-border rocket and mortar attacks has increased. Some rockets barely missed a kindergarten and a home in Sderot, half a mile away. A military spokesman noted 18 rocket and mortar attacks since Jan. 17.

Yaron said that more than 1,400 Qassam rockets and mortar bombs were fired at Israeli towns and Gaza settlements since the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began in September 2000.

The Israelis have been striking lathes and other Palestinian installations but Saturday night's operation was particularly extensive.

"We have to maintain continuity in the war on terrorism. We must not allow a situation in which the terrorists rest even one moment. All the time they must be on the defensive and hiding and we must be those who initiate," the new commander of the Israeli division in the Gaza Strip, Brig. Gen. Gadi Shamni, said.

After the raid Palestinians fired five Qassam rockets toward the town in Netivot, 7 miles away, and two toward the fields of Kibbutz Nir-Am, some 2 miles away. One of the rockets crashed into a highway. Later Sunday Israeli troops found seven more rockets in the orchards of Beit Hanun, in the northeastern Gaza Strip, and destroyed them.

Israeli officers conceded they had no foolproof solution to these attacks.

"Whenever we'll have accurate intelligence, we shall try to foil terror attacks emerging from there. There is no alternative, we shall have to return there," Yaron said.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel was considering reoccupying the Gaza Strip. In a radio interview Sunday, Mofaz said, "We must keep all the options open, also the option of taking over the strip's area was considered in the past, is being considered, and we shall decide when to do so."

Mofaz belongs to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party, and his comments stood in stark contrast to the policy that opposition Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna has advocated. Mitzna wants to pull the army out of the Gaza Strip within a year, even without an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. National elections in Israel are set for Tuesday.

Retired Maj. Den. Danny Rthoschild, president of the Council for Peace and Security, a forum of mostly dovish former senior military and security service officers, criticized Mofaz Sunday. Rothschild noted more than 1.2 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip.

"Your chances of winning in an area so crowded and problematic are almost minimal. This is simply not wise," he said. Israeli should concentrate on going after the militants, not controlling such a big population, he argued.

The Federation of the Muslim World condemned the Israeli assault on Gaza, calling it a "terrorist massacre."

A statement by the federation, based in Saudi Arabia, expressed the "pain of the peoples, minorities and Muslim groups, and strongly condemn the terrorist operations carried out by Israel through its policy of genocide."


(With reporting by Joshua Brilliant in Tel Aviv, Israel)

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