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Israel's Gaza Thrust Clouds Peace Talks

By IBRAHIM BARZAK and AMY TEIBEL
The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 11, 2007; 3:53 PM

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip -- Israeli tanks and bulldozers pushed into the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday, killing five Islamic militants and trapping hundreds of people in their homes, while another extremist died from an airstrike elsewhere in the territory.

The incursion _ Israel's broadest since Hamas seized control of the coastal strip last June _ came a day before the first Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in seven years, casting a pall over the negotiations and underscoring the threat that Hamas poses to implementing any accord.

Palestinian officials said the offensive, along with a construction project in the Har Homa neighborhood of disputed east Jerusalem, threatened to sabotage the talks. They said the plan to build 307 apartments in the traditionally Arab area would dominate Wednesday's meeting.

"The decision to build new housing units in Har Homa created a lot of problems for the credibility of the peace process," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

The State Department, which has criticized Israel for planning new apartments in the West Bank, sought to play down expectations for the talks' opening day, saying it was envisioned only as an organizational meeting.

"If they choose to address substance, then, of course, that is going to be up to them, and we would encourage them to move as fast as they are able to move together," spokesman Sean McCormack said.

McCormack declined to comment on Israel's military thrust into Gaza, but noted militant attacks on Israeli towns are a continuing problem.

Since the Hamas takeover in Gaza, Israel has carried out frequent airstrikes and ground incursions in response to near daily Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli border communities. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group and holds it responsible for all attacks launched from Gaza.

At the same time, Israel has been pursuing a peace agreement with the rival West Bank government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces in Gaza were routed by the Islamic militants of Hamas in June.

In Tuesday's operation, Israeli army tanks and bulldozers pushed about a mile along the main road in southern Gaza at dawn, taking up positions across a 2.5-mile stretch of land. It was the deepest military sweep since the Hamas takeover, but Israeli forces withdrew after nightfall, the military said.

Among Israel's targets was a multistory building that sustained heavy damage in fighting. The rubble held three bodies, including the severed legs of a dead militant. As rescuers pulled the bodies away, two Israeli shells struck the building seconds apart, sending people scrambling for cover.

The incident was filmed by AP Television News. An AP cameraman and several other journalists suffered minor injuries and shock.

Residents and Hamas security forces said at least 30 tanks and bulldozers took part in the operation. Israel's military said 10 tanks were sent in.

Soldiers took over the rooftops of several homes and detained more than 60 people in house-to-house sweeps. Panicked children ran through the streets of Khan Younis as they rushed home early from school to take refuge at home.

Militants carrying land mines and other weapons dodged among houses and maneuvered behind the tanks to fire at soldiers. Others took cover behind trees or covered themselves in leaves to hide in open farmland. The army said four soldiers were slightly wounded in the fighting.

Gaza medical officials said five Palestinian militants died in the fighting in southern Gaza, while a sixth was killed by an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip's north.

The offensive focused on an area that is a main launching ground for rocket and mortar assaults on Israeli army bases and the Israeli-controlled Sufa crossing into Gaza, Israeli officials said.

"The extremists in Gaza are trying to kill Israeli civilians. The Israeli operations are defensive and designed to protect our civilian population that has been the target of barrages of daily rocket attacks," said government spokesman Mark Regev.

Israeli military officials said the operation was routine and not connected to the peace talks. But Palestinian officials called the violence a sign of bad faith on Israel's part.

"The Israeli policy of escalation aims to sabotage and place obstacles before the negotiations even before they start," said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for Abbas.

Hamas officials urged Abbas to put aside internal Palestinian rivalries and boycott Wednesday's talks. "The hand of the enemy is still dripping with the blood of the martyrs," said Taher Nunu, a Hamas spokesman. "It is a mark of shame to go to the negotiations tomorrow."

The peace talks follow last month's Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md., where Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to try to reach a final agreement by the end of 2008.

The last round of talks crumbled in early 2001, shortly after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising. Since then, more than 4,400 Palestinians and 1,100 Israelis have been killed.

Hamas' control of Gaza is just one of the obstacles in the negotiations, with Olmert warning that Israel cannot implement any peace agreement until Abbas regains control of Gaza.

East Jerusalem is another impediment.

The Palestinians are furious over Israel's announcement last week that it would build 307 apartments in the Har Homa neighborhood. Palestinians want the capital of their future state to be east Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordanian control in the 1967 Mideast War.

The Palestinians consider any Israeli building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem to be settlement activity and a violation of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan's ban on all settlement construction.

Israel says the settlement freeze does not apply to Jerusalem. Israel annexed east Jerusalem after the 1967 war and considers the entire city to be its capital.

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Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak reported this story from Khan Younis and Amy Teibel from Jerusalem.

© 2007 The Associated Press