- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

TEL AVIV — At least 14 Palestinians were killed in a central Gaza Strip refugee camp yesterday during fierce battles between local gunmen and Israeli tanks and infantry units that combed the crowded neighborhood for militants.

The fighting marked the bloodiest spasm in an eight-day surge of violence in the Gaza Strip, just as Israel’s government draws up a plan to withdraw from the coastal strip of land north of the Egyptian border.

The death toll, the highest in the Gaza Strip in nearly 17 months, included three children and at least nine gunmen, according to news agencies. Palestinian medical officials said almost 100 people were injured in the fighting.

The seven-hour offensive began before dawn when Israeli vehicles rolled into the Bureij and Nuseirat refugee districts, where they were met with antitank missiles and gunfire. Witnesses said residents ran into the streets to slow the Israeli forces while Palestinian children threw stones at the tanks.

“At a time when [the Israelis] are speaking about withdrawing from Gaza, they’re destroying Gaza,” Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat said.

A leaflet released by Hamas’ military wing promised swift retaliation from the Islamic fundamentalist group.

Palestinian witnesses said the Israeli force included 30 vehicles backed by helicopters. Israeli snipers positioned themselves on the roofs of four-story apartment buildings in the area.

“I don’t understand why they carried out this attack. Was it only for killing and damaging?” asked Mahmoud Abu Hujair, 40, the owner of a gas station where Israeli tanks positioned themselves during the offensive.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in January that if there is no progress on the U.S.-sponsored “road-map” peace plan, he is prepared to dismantle nearly all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, where about 7,500 Israelis live in heavily guarded enclaves surrounded by 1.3 million Palestinians.

Israel’s army said the incursion was aimed at capturing militants responsible for planting land mines and firing antitank missiles against its forces.

Government spokesmen said they regretted the civilian casualties, but blamed militant groups for hunkering down in the middle of residential neighborhoods. Television footage showed masked gunmen taking cover in alleyways alongside children.

“I hope that the Palestinians will stop using civilians as shields,” said Batsheva Genut, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.

“We will not let the refugee camps become a launching ground for terrorist attacks. The only goal that the [Israeli Defense Force] had in Gaza today was preventing Palestinian terrorists from carrying out attacks against Israelis.”

The Israeli army denied that the offensive was in retaliation for a botched triple bombing on Saturday at the Erez Crossing on the northern border of the Gaza Strip.

The attack, a joint effort among Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah, left six Palestinians dead but claimed no Israeli casualties.

Erez, the site of a Palestinian-Israeli industrial park and a crossing point for Gazans who work inside Israel, has been the target of three bombings in the past six weeks.

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