24 Killed As Israel Moves Into N. Gaza

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 27, 2006

JERUSALEM, July Israeli troops pushed into the northern Gaza Strip early Wednesday, sparking intense street clashes with local fighters that left 24 Palestinians dead and at least 57 wounded, Palestinian security and hospital officials said. They said most of the victims were struck by Israeli tank shells or missiles launched from Israeli drones flying overhead.

The fighting made Wednesday the deadliest day in Gaza since Israel pulled out of the strip last year.

At least 30 Israeli tanks joined the operation, which began about 3 a.m. and continued throughout the day in the al-Tofah neighborhood east of Gaza City, witnesses said. They described pitched battles in which Palestinian gunmen fired AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at Israeli forces, which responded with tank fire and missiles.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said the incursion was part of Israel's continuing campaign to stop Palestinian groups from launching homemade Qassam rockets into Israel and to secure the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian fighters on June 25.

She said Israeli forces launched "aerial attacks" on nine separate cells of Palestinian gunmen, which were attempting to fire antitank rockets at Israeli forces or to plant crude bombs in routes that Israeli forces might use. "We hit all of them," she said of the cells.

The fighting continued in al-Tofah Wednesday night, hospital officials said. A woman, 42, and two of her children, ages 1 and 9, were killed in an Israeli missile attack about 9 p.m., hospital officials added.

Palestinian security sources, hospital officials and statements from radical groups indicated that 12 of the people killed Wednesday were militants -- seven from Hamas, which runs the Palestinian government, and five from another radical Palestinian group, Islamic Jihad. Twelve of the dead were civilians, hospital officials said, including a 3-year-old girl and four teenage boys.

"We warned residents to clear the area before the attack," the Israeli military spokeswoman said, adding that Israel had issued numerous warnings in recent days that Palestinian civilians in Gaza should stay away from buildings that house militants and their weapons. "We have dropped leaflets, we have warned them through the media, and it has been done through recorded phone calls" placed to Palestinian homes, she said.

The Israeli army, in a statement Tuesday, indicated that it would not be deterred from attacking civilian targets if they were being used by terrorists.

"Terrorist organizations operate from within civilian populations, while cynically exploiting uninvolved civilians and using them as human shields," the statement said. "From now on, the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] intends to attack weapon storage facilities, including those located in houses, and the sites from which rockets are being launched and terror attacks are dispatched against the citizens of Israel."

The Palestinian Health Ministry said Wednesday that since hostilities flared in Gaza with the capture of the Israeli soldier last month, 155 Palestinians have been killed, including 45 children, and 623 have been wounded.

Special correspondent Islam Abdulkarim in the Gaza Strip contributed to this report.

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