Israeli Troops Spark Clashes In Gaza Strip

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 2, 2006

GAZA CITY, Nov. 1 -- Israeli special forces backed by tanks and drone aircraft pushed into the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday, setting off hours of fighting that killed at least seven Palestinians, most of them gunmen, and one Israeli soldier. More than 40 other Palestinians were wounded by shrapnel and Israeli gunfire, some from rooftop snipers.

The raid was designed to root out stockpiles of crude Palestinian rockets, known as Qassams, and the men who fire them into southern Israel. By twilight, at least eight rockets had landed in or around the Israeli city of Sderot, damaging cars and slightly injuring two women in the largest one-day barrage in weeks.

A few masked gunmen from the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinians' governing Hamas movement, held a street-corner news conference here, where a spokesman called on Sderot residents to leave the city "if they care about their lives."

Capt. Noa Meir, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said the Palestinian guerrillas "are going to try to prove they still have the ability to do this. Bringing rocket fire down to zero may be impossible."

Israeli forces, which pulled out of Gaza last year, have been entering the strip regularly since the June 25 cross-border raid in which gunmen killed two Israeli soldiers and captured Cpl. Gilad Shalit, a 20-year-old conscript now in the hands of Hamas's military wing. Operations have rarely lasted longer than a few days and have focused on reducing rocket fire and destroying tunnels used by Palestinians to smuggle weapons across Gaza's border with Egypt.

In recent days, senior Israeli military officers have argued for a broader assault on the strip, frustrated that the rocket attacks, while declining in intensity, have continued. Israel's security cabinet rejected the military's request Wednesday but voted to continue what Israeli officials describe as "pinpoint" operations.

The push Wednesday into Beit Hanoun brought Israeli troops as deep into Gaza as they have been in months, effectively sealing off the agricultural community of 28,000 people. Palestinian health officials said Israeli forces prevented ambulances from entering or exiting the small hospital in Beit Hanoun for hours. Israeli military officials said that the delay was the result of heavy fighting and that a humanitarian corridor into Beit Hanoun for Palestinian ambulances was opened after noon.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas called the operation a "massacre," adding that he hoped "the Israeli escalation in the Gaza Strip would not affect the ongoing negotiations" over Shalit's release. Israeli and Palestinian officials, working through Egyptian mediators, have been seeking a deal that would free roughly 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit.

Hamas gunmen engaged Israeli troops as they crossed into Beit Hanoun around 1:30 a.m., firing rocket-propelled grenades and rifles with support fire from tanks and drones. An Israeli soldier identified as Staff Sgt. Kiril Golenshein, 21, was killed in the morning fighting.

Golenshein is the third Israeli soldier killed in Gaza since Shalit's capture. Over that time, more than 250 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed by Israeli military forces; most of them were gunmen.

"We were exchanging fire with the special forces," said Rami Ehkrawat, 24, a Hamas gunmen recovering from a bullet wound in his left leg at Kamal Adwan Hospital in Beit Lahiya. "Our men heard Israeli soldiers screaming for help."

Ahmad Saadat, a 23-year-old Hamas gunman, was killed next to Ehkrawat. The dead also included three other Hamas gunmen -- Tareq Naser, 23; Husam Abu Herbeed, 26; and Ahmad Odwan, 20. Mohammed al-Masri, 23, of the radical group Islamic Jihad, and Fayez al-Zuwaidy, 27, of the Palestinian National Forces, a government security branch, were also killed. The affiliation of the seventh man, Khalil Hamad, 28, was unclear. The Reuters news service reported two additional deaths, both civilians, citing hospital officials.

Maazoza Abu Amsha, 60, said she peered out her window during the fighting and watched four Hamas gunmen stop a Palestinian ambulance. The men, she said, waved the ambulance on after determining it was not being used by Israeli special forces.

Seconds later, Abu Amsha said, a missile slammed into the men from the sky. She said she was wounded when a second missile landed nearby as she and about a dozen relatives tried to help the wounded.

"As long as Israel continues to target us, we will target Israel," said Abu Obaida, a spokesman for Hamas's military wing.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company