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Israel kills 20 Palestinians in big Gaza raid
Updated: 2004-05-19 08:51

Israel's army killed 20 Palestinians on Tuesday in the heaviest raid in the Gaza Strip for years as tanks and infantry thrust into Rafah refugee camp, a militant hotbed, despite an international outcry.

The assault drew U.N. and European Union condemnation given Israeli threats to destroy hundreds of Palestinian homes there. Thousands of Palestinian houses have been razed since they began a revolt in occupied territory in 2000, U.N. figures show.

A Palestinian woman holds a baby in the rubble of her house after it was hit by a missile from an Israeli helicopter, at the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, May 18, 2004. [Reuters]
But the army said there were no plans for any systematic demolition during what it called an open-ended operation to stop the smuggling of arms through tunnels from nearby Egypt.

An army spokesman said troops flattened five buildings from which militants had fired on soldiers and a sixth was blown up when a bomb being prepared by a militant detonated prematurely.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees set up tents to accommodate some 1,600 displaced people.

President Bush called the Gaza bloodshed "troubling" but, addressing Jewish-Americans in a tight election campaign, told the powerful pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC that Israel "has every right to defend itself from terror."

But a senior State Department official said Israeli forces in Rafah on Gaza's southern border were not doing enough to avoid "knocking down houses of people who may be innocent."

The raid led to the highest single-day Palestinian death toll -- civilians as well as militants -- since May 2002 when 23 were killed in an army sweep into the nearby Khan Younis area.

The Rafah hospital morgue became so overloaded that five bodies were shifted to vegetable freezers in a nearby market.

Late on Tuesday, militants fired an anti-tank rocket at cars approaching the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in north Gaza but missed and there were no casualties, the army said. A major explosion had been reported by Palestinians in nearby Gaza City.


Violence has worsened in Gaza since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed evacuating troops and Jewish settlers in a plan backed by most Israelis and the United States, but held up by opposition from hard-liners in his right-wing party.

Militant groups want to claim as a victory any pullout by Israel from territories it captured in the 1967 Middle East war, while the army is determined to smash them first.

Israel amassed more forces in Gaza than at any time since occupying it 37 years ago, commentators said, for a raid launched after militants killed 13 soldiers there last week -- the biggest blow to the army in two years.

Before the ground assault, Israeli helicopter gunships killed seven Palestinians, at least three of them gunmen and another a civilian, outside a mosque, witnesses said.

Other Palestinians, including at least one fighter, were shot dead during street battles. A teenage brother and sister were among the dead, killed on the roof as they fed pigeons and hung out washing, residents said.

Air attacks and street clashes wounded around 30 people.

Palestinian medics said soldiers held up ambulances trying to evacuate wounded. The army said it gave passage to all emergency service vehicles once roads were secured.

"We are afraid," said Miriam Abu Jazzar, surveying the blood-stained ruins of her daughter's home, smashed by a missile. "Every hour there is shooting."

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat said "a big massacre" had happened in Rafah and called for international intervention to stop Israel's "military escalation and ugly crimes."

Army sources said soldiers had fired only at militants, hitting at least 15 of the gunmen, as they searched house-to-house for wanted men and their tunnels.

Militants fired rockets and set off hidden bombs in the cinderblock camp of 90,000 people, founded in 1949 for some of the 700,000 Palestinians uprooted by Israel's independence war.

Amnesty International, in a new report, said Israel had destroyed more than 3,000 Palestinian houses since 2000. It said demolitions were "punitive" and done without military necessity in most cases, constituting a war crime under international law.

Israel's Foreign Ministry responded by saying the army razed only buildings used as gun nests or hiding smuggling tunnels.

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