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Israeli forces thrust into northern Gaza
Updated: 2004-09-09 10:24

Israeli forces thrust into the outskirts of the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on Thursday in what the military said was an effort to stop Palestinians firing rockets into Israel.

An Israeli tank moves into the Gaza Strip September 8, 2004. Heavy fighting erupted in the northern Gaza on Thursday as a column of Israeli tanks entered the outskirts of the Jabalya refugee camp during a sweep for militants launching rockets into Israel. [Reuters]

Scores of Palestinian gunmen in the militant stronghold fought the column of tanks and armored vehicles as it took positions on the outskirts of the teeming camp under cover of darkness, residents and witnesses said.

Helicopter gunships hovering overhead fired two missiles at gunmen during fierce fighting. Five gunmen were wounded, one critically.

It was the second day in a row that Israeli forces had gone into the northern Gaza Strip to try to stop rockets being fired by militants toward the southern Israeli town of Sderot.

The operation followed the army's killing of 14 Hamas fighters on Tuesday in the deadliest single strike ever against the militant Islamic group, which is sworn to Israel's destruction.

Militants from Hamas, responsible for a double suicide bombing that killed 16 Israelis in the southern city of Beersheba last week, and other Palestinian groups vowed revenge for the Israeli attacks.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group linked to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, tried to send a car bomb into Israel from the West Bank, but it blew up near the boundary, killing only the driver.

The latest spiral of violence could further complicate Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw troops and settlers from the occupied Gaza Strip by the end of 2005.

Palestinian militants are determined to claim any Israeli pullout as a victory, but Israel has vowed to smash them first.

Palestinians condemn Israeli operations

Condemning the raid, Palestinian Negotiations Minister Saeb Erekat said: "While Israel speaks about disengagement, its army occupies large parts of the Gaza Strip... turning it into a big prison."

Israeli forces on Wednesday surrounded Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya -- towns that have been frequently raided -- and bulldozers tore up stretches of road to block off the area.

The army said militants fired five Qassam rockets that landed near a collective farm in Israel's western Negev desert. There were no reports of casualties.

Egypt warned Israel it would not be able to assist the Palestinian Authority in filling the power vacuum likely to be left by next year's planned Gaza withdrawal if the army kept up its attacks against militants operating in the coastal strip.

"Egypt also cannot intervene in the Palestinian issue with the required weight and depth in the shadow of continuing Israeli attacks on the Palestinians," said Egyptian presidential spokesman Maged Abdel Fattah in Cairo.

On Tuesday, Israeli warplanes, tanks and helicopters pounded a Hamas training camp on the outskirts of Gaza City, killing 14 militants. Israel said the Hamas men had been learning to plant explosives, launch rockets and kidnap soldiers and civilians.

Israeli soldiers killed a fugitive militant during an arrest operation in the usually sleepy West Bank town of Jericho, residents said. The army said the troops exchanged fire with three militants, killing one and wounding two.

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