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Israeli Gaza raid kills 14; revenge vowed
(Agencies)
Updated: 2004-03-08 08:41

Israeli troops carried out their deadliest raid in Gaza in 17 months on Sunday, part of a surge of bloodshed ahead of a possible Israeli withdrawal from the coastal strip.

Fourteen Palestinians were killed and 81 wounded in more than six hours of fighting on the edge of the Bureij refugee camp.

The battle pitted Palestinians armed with assault rifles, anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers against Israeli troops firing from helicopters, tanks and rooftop sniper positions. Children chased tanks, throwing stones.

Among the dead were three boys, ages 8, 12 and 15.

The Israeli military said the purpose of the raid was to put Palestinian militants on the defensive and prevent them from carrying out attacks on Israelis. However, residents of Bureij said soldiers did not try to make arrests or search for arms caches.

The Palestinian Authority denounced the raid as "state terrorism," and urged the international community to intervene.

Palestinians said Israeli soldiers were trying to draw out militants in what appeared to be a new tactic.

Armed groups routinely exhort their members over mosque loudspeakers to confront approaching Israeli troops, despite vastly inferior weapons and considerable risk. Sunday was no exception.

After the battle, a militant leader took the highly unusual step of appealing to his forces not to fall into the trap again.

"The Palestinian people are now uniting in the trenches of resistance," said Islamic Jihad leader Mohammed al-Hindi, "but we also call on the sons of the resistance not to be dragged into battles forced upon us by the (Israeli) occupation."

Sunday's fighting was part of a recent rise in violence that has been attributed to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal to withdraw from most, if not all, of Gaza and parts of the West Bank if there is no progress toward peace in coming months.

Each side seems to be positioning itself to claim a withdrawal as a victory Israel by pounding the militants hard before a pullout, and the armed groups by stepping up attacks to create the impression they are chasing the Israelis out.

In the past week, Israeli helicopter gunships have struck twice, killing six militants and a boy in missile attacks in Gaza City. On Saturday, three militant Palestinian groups sent bomb-laden jeeps in a suicide mission aimed at blowing up an Israeli checkpoint on the edge of Gaza. Six Palestinians were killed in the blasts and exchanges of fire.

The raid was the deadliest in Gaza since October 2002, when 19 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli operation in the Khan Younis refugee camp.

The dead 10 militants and four civilians were given a joint funeral. Tens of thousands of Palestians marched in the streets, and masked Hamas militants pledged revenge. Hamas has carried out dozens of suicide bombings against Israelis during 41 months of conflict.

One Hamas gunman told mourners the militants are sending a message to Sharon that "we are ready for confrontation."

Avi Pazner, an Israeli government spokesman, said such raids help save Israeli lives. "Terrorism is pouring out of this refugee camp, and we have to stop it," Pazner said of Bureij.

There are concerns that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza could push the crowded, impoverished territory into chaos. Already, rival groups are vying for power, as the Palestinian Authority has lost much of its influence, and attacks on Palestinian officials are on the increase.

Israel's proposed unilateral action has drawn fire from the Palestinians and muted criticism from the United States. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who is to meet with U.S. officials in Washington this week, is to assure them that Israel would not withdraw from Gaza until after the U.S. presidential election in November, security officials have said.

Also Sunday, soldiers scuffled with Palestinians protesting the separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank. Residents of the village of Beit Dukou, northwest of Jerusalem, tried to block bulldozers clearing land for the barrier.

Soldiers threw stun grenades and chased and dragged villagers down an embankment. The residents say that barrier will cut them off from their fields. "The wall strangles the people completely," local council head Said Rayan said. About 1,500 people live in the village.

Israel insists it needs the barrier to keep Palestinian suicide bombers and other attackers out. However, the planned route of the complex of walls, fences, trenches, barbed wire and electronic sensors snakes back and forth into the West Bank to protect Jewish settlements and enclose Palestinian towns and villages, leading to Palestinian charges that the real purpose of the project is to confiscate West Bank land.

 
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