- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli troops clashed with Hamas militants in Gaza yesterday, killing two of them and a bystander in a shoot-out in a refugee camp where Israel has been conducting raids for more than a week.

Another Palestinian was killed in the West Bank town of Tulkarm when Israeli soldiers fired on crowds of Palestinian youths throwing stones and a firebomb.

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Meanwhile, a team of FBI explosives and forensics specialists continued its investigation yesterday into the bombing attack on a convoy of U.S. officials in Gaza that killed three Americans on Wednesday, U.S. Embassy spokesman Paul Patin said.

The team met Friday for several hours with Palestinian police commanders at an Israeli checkpoint near the border with the Gaza Strip as part of a joint investigation.

The Palestinians have detained seven members of a rogue militant group, the Popular Resistance Committee, and have briefed the U.S. team on the questioning of the detainees. However, a senior U.S. official said cooperation from Palestinian security officials had been mixed.

In yesterday’s pre-dawn fighting in Gaza, Israeli troops fired on armed Hamas militants who were planting explosives along paths traveled by Israeli tanks in the Rafah refugee camp, the army and Hamas members said.

Tariq Abu Hussein, 39, a well-known local field commander of the Hamas military wing, and another Hamas militant were killed. At least 10 persons were wounded.

Several bystanders who had come to evacuate casualties in their cars were fired on by a tank and machine guns, witnesses said. A woman in one car, Widad Ajrami, 28, was killed and her husband and a brother-in-law were wounded, a relative said.

An army spokeswoman said soldiers only shot at armed men and denied reports that a tank had fired a shell.

For more than a week, Israeli troops backed by attack helicopters and tanks have fought pitched battles with Palestinian gunmen in Rafah, an operation meant to uncover tunnels used by Palestinians to smuggle weapons under the Egyptian border.

So far, 14 Palestinians — including two children and a female bystander — have been killed since the operation began. Troops have uncovered and blown up three tunnels used to smuggle arms.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which aids Palestinian refugees, said earlier this week that 114 homes had been destroyed since the start of the operation, leaving 1,240 people homeless. The army said about 30 buildings were knocked down.

The human rights group Amnesty International called the destruction a “war crime.”

Israel’s military has said it launched the 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 advanced weapons, like anti-aircraft missiles, from Egypt through the cross-border tunnels.

Throughout much of the last three years of fighting, Rafah and its refugee camp have been a daily battleground, with gunmen attacking army outposts along the border.

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