- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

JERUSALEM — Palestinian militants armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades battled Israeli helicopters and tanks in the Gaza Strip yesterday in the bloodiest day since Israel invaded the territory over an Israeli soldier’s capture. At least 21 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed.

Israeli troops retook three empty Jewish settlements nearly a year after abandoning them, seeking to carve out a temporary buffer zone in the northern Gaza Strip to prevent militants from firing more rockets into Israel.

After touring Gaza’s main hospital, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the Islamic militant group Hamas called for international intervention to stop the Israeli offensive, which he called a “crime against humanity.”

Before yesterday’s bloodletting, Israel had fired well over 1,000 shells into the Gaza Strip and had staged repeated air attacks over a two-week period without a single Palestinian civilian being reported killed.

This statistic is at the heart of Israel’s strategy as it attempts to extricate a captured Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, from the warrens of Gaza and put an end to rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

Yesterday’s action, in which the first civilians were reported killed, came after Israeli forces moved into three abandoned settlements, trying to push militants out of rocket range of the Israeli city of Ashkelon, which has been hit for the first time this week.

Israeli forces with tanks, Apache helicopters and machine guns engaged with masked militants in the densely populated town of Beit Lahiya, where one Israeli soldier was killed by a gunshot to the head.

Despite the fierce fighting Israeli Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan told the Associated Press: “We are doing the utmost effort … to avoid civilian casualties.”

Such precautions — which include bombing buildings in the dead of night when they are empty and firing artillery shells into vacant fields — are designed in part to prevent a revenge killing of Cpl. Shalit by his captors. There is also a desire to preclude international pressure on Israel to halt the activities in Gaza.

When Palestinian officials complained that sonic booms deliberately caused by Israeli jets, day and night, were traumatizing Gaza’s children, an Israeli official said, “We’ll stop when their rockets stop traumatizing the children in Sderot,” a city that has been hit by hundreds of rockets.

Electricity and water shortages and the constant sounds of war have made life in the Gaza Strip miserable, even without fatalities. A Hamas official said that Israel was trying to convince the Palestinian public that the capture of the Israeli soldier would bring more travail than benefits. Israeli officials do not claim to have achieved this effect yet but they think that they will over time.

In authorizing yesterday’s ground incursion into the northern part of the Gaza Strip, the Cabinet instructed the defense establishment to prepare for a “prolonged and graduated” process. Military officials are speaking of an operation in the Gaza Strip lasting “weeks or months.”

Hamas’ military wing, which had hoped Israel would be pressured into a quick agreement to hand over hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinian prisoners, finds itself under pressure by the drawn-out nature of the confrontation that is shaping up.

The Arabic newspaper, Al-Hayat, published in London, reported yesterday that Hamas had dropped its demand for the release of thousands of prisoners and was now calling just for the release of female prisoners and youths under 18.

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