By Samuel Sockol
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
JERUSALEM, Jan. 15 -- Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters battled in the northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday, leaving 20 Palestinians dead, a health official said, including a son of a senior leader of Hamas, the armed Islamic movement that controls the territory.
After Israel launched a pre-dawn raid involving troops, tanks and helicopters, Palestinian gunmen killed an Ecuadoran laborer working in an Israeli potato field near the Gaza boundary and fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel, wounding four people, officials said. Hamas asserted responsibility for the shooting and the rocket fire.
The fighting caused the highest one-day death toll for Palestinians in clashes with Israeli forces since November 2006 and occurred four days after President Bush visited Israel and the occupied West Bank to help revive peace negotiations.
The Israeli incursion prompted recriminations from the Palestinian Authority, which administers the West Bank and which is participating in the peace talks. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that the raid had caused a "massacre" and that "we say to the world that our people will not remain silent against such crimes."
Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, whose son Husam was a Hamas fighter killed in the raid and whose son Khaled was killed in an Israeli bombing in 2003, said Bush had "encouraged the Israelis to kill our people."
"What is going on in Gaza today is a shame for all of those who cooperated with Bush, the criminal, and with the Zionists," Zahar said. "I am talking about all the kings, presidents and ministers," he added, criticizing Arab leaders who have met the American president during his tour of the region. Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization, is not part of the negotiations.
In June, Hamas seized unilateral control of Gaza, breaking a power-sharing arrangement with Abbas's Fatah movement and splitting the territories politically.
Capt. Noa Meir, spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces, said the raid Tuesday was a "routine pinpoint operation," intended "to keep terrorists away from the security fence" that divides Israel and Gaza. She said three airstrikes occurred during the operation, each targeting a group of Palestinian fighters. Israeli officials said the incursion ended at midday.
Meir said 50 rockets and mortar shells landed in Israel during the day. Four civilians in the city of Sderot were injured in the attacks, but there were no reports of Israeli military casualties.
Muawiya Hasanein, a senior Health Ministry official in Gaza, said that 14 fighters and five civilians were killed in the operation, with 55 people wounded. An Israeli airstrike later in the day killed another person, described by Israeli officials as one of a group launching rockets and by Hasanein as a civilian.
The Ecuadoran worker, Carlos Ch¿vez, was a volunteer at a kibbutz. His friends said he had hoped to make his life in Israel.
On Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia met in Jerusalem to begin talks aimed at resolving the "core issues" that divide the two sides, including the fate of Palestinian refugees and the borders of a future Palestinian state. Bush said Thursday that he believed an accord between the Israelis and Palestinians would be signed by the time he leaves office in January 2009.
Qureia, referring to the Israeli raids, said Tuesday that "these massacres, that go hand in hand with the continuation of the siege on our brave people in Gaza, and daily incursions to the cities of the West Bank and Gaza, with the continuation of the settlement activity, complicate and put obstacles ahead of the talks."
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip were defensive. "We are trying to protect our people from daily attacks from extremists," he said. "We are being as surgical as possible. Israel wants the negotiations to succeed; we are still committed to find a solution . . . this year."
Taher Nunu, a Hamas spokesman, said the violence was the result of the meeting between Qureia and Livni. "We have repeatedly warned that such meetings are exploited by the Israeli occupation forces to commit more massacres and to kill the large number of Palestinian citizens while negotiating illusory projects," he said.
Special correspondent Islam Abdel Kareem in Gaza City contributed to this report.