At Least Six Palestinians Die in Clashes With Israel

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

JERUSALEM, Oct. 23 -- At least six Palestinians died Monday in clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip, part of an escalating operation there to stop rocket fire into southern Israel and smuggling across its borders. One of those killed was a high-ranking Palestinian militia commander, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

Twenty other Palestinians were wounded in fighting that unfolded between the northern Gaza villages of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, the prime launching ground for crude Palestinian rockets that often strike Israeli communities in the south but rarely kill anyone. One of the wounded was close to death, Palestinian hospital officials said.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called the event "a loathsome massacre carried out on, of all days, the first day of Eid al-Fitr," the Muslim feast celebrating the end of the fasting season of Ramadan. Israeli officials have noted that Palestinian rockets fell inside Israel this month during Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday.

More than 200 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have died in the Israeli military operation in Gaza that began June 25 after the capture of an Israeli soldier by gunmen from several armed groups including the military wing of the governing Hamas movement. Israeli armor and infantry have entered and withdrawn from the strip for months.

But in recent days, tanks and soldiers have taken up positions along the southern frontier with Egypt, a prime arms-smuggling route, and in northern Gaza, to combat the near-daily rocket attacks. Israeli political leaders have warned of a broader assault.

There were divergent accounts of the circumstances surrounding the fighting Monday and of how many of those who died were armed. One of those killed was Atta al-Shinbari, 35, a senior commander of the radical Popular Resistance Committees responsible for much of the rocket fire into Israel. At least three others were male relatives of Shinbari, including his 40-year-old brother, Khalid. Palestinian witnesses said the men were not affiliated with any armed factions.

One of the other dead was identified as Rami Hamdan, 23, a member of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Palestinian witnesses said Shinbari was visiting the home of his sister in Beit Lahiya on the first day of Eid al-Fitr, when it is customary to mourn family members who have died in the previous year. A mourning tent was set up outside the home.

The witnesses said a car carrying Israeli soldiers, apparently disguised as Palestinians, opened fire on Shinbari as he approached the house. The ensuing gunfight lasted for hours.

Israeli military officials said soldiers opened fire only after a group of Palestinian gunmen began shooting at them. Officials said the soldiers reported hitting 10 gunmen in what one of them described as a "heavy exchange of fire."

In another development, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expanded his governing coalition Monday by adding Israel Is Our Home, a party dominated by immigrants from the former Soviet Union that is one of the most hawkish in Israel's 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.

Down in the polls following the summer war in Lebanon, Olmert is seeking new members for his government in anticipation of a contentious budget season. By adding Israel Is Our Home, Olmert improves his control of the Knesset from 67 to 78 seats, among the broadest in recent times.

The agreement gives a cabinet seat to Avigdor Lieberman, an immigrant from Moldova who worked his way into the highest ranks of Israeli politics from an early job as an El Al Airlines baggage handler. Lieberman, 48, will hold the title of deputy prime minister charged with managing the threat posed to Israel by Iran, which many nations fear is developing nuclear weapons.

Lieberman's signature proposal is to redraw Israel's recognized international border in a way that would place roughly 150,000 Arab citizens of Israel in the West Bank, annexing the largest Jewish settlement blocs there in return. The move, roundly denounced by other Zionist parties, would strengthen the state's Jewish majority by stripping those Arabs of Israeli citizenship.

Lieberman is also pushing legislation to create a system in Israel that would allow direct elections for the prime minister, who is now effectively chosen by parliament. Israel's system is notoriously fractious, leading to governments with little room to maneuver on big issues and short political lives. The bill, narrowly endorsed by Olmert's cabinet this week, has little chance of passing the Knesset. Olmert opposes the measure.

[Palestinian gunmen kidnapped a Spanish photographer working for the Associated Press news agency in the Gaza Strip early Tuesday, the Associated Press said. The agency said the photographer was getting into a vehicle outside his home in Gaza City when four gunmen seized him. There was no immediate assertion of responsibility.]

Special correspondent Islam Abdelkareem in Gaza contributed.

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