Israeli tanks, armored vehicles and attack helicopters searching for Palestinian fighters swept into two communities in the Gaza Strip today and encountered stiff resistance, leading to fierce gun battles that killed 10 Palestinians, including a 4-year-old girl and two teenage boys, Palestinian security sources and Israeli military officials said.
The bloodshed, on top of weeks of intensified fighting in the Gaza Strip, renewed concern that the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which began 21/2 years ago, could remain a volatile flash point during any war between the United States and Iraq. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Israeli leaders bowed to U.S. requests not to inflame anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli sentiment. It remains unclear whether Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hard-line government will adhere to such requests this time.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian legislature met in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 12 miles north of Jerusalem, to consider the appointment of the Palestinians' first prime minister. Sharon and President Bush have said naming a prime minister with real power is a prerequisite to renewing a cease-fire and peace talks. Last week Bush promised to release a U.S.-sponsored peace plan, called the "road map," as soon as the Palestinians appointed a "credible" prime minister, which Israeli and U.S. officials see as a way of sidelining the longtime Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, with whom they refuse to talk.
In an emotional and unruly session, the Palestinian Legislative Council defeated Arafat's efforts to dilute the powers of the newly created position by requiring the appointee to consult with Arafat over cabinet appointments. With Arafat and his supporters refusing to back down, the lawmakers postponed a final decision and were scheduled to reconvene Tuesday.
Late Sunday night and early today in the Gaza Strip, about 30 Israeli tanks and armored vehicles backed by AH-64 Apache attack helicopters raided the Nuseirat refugee camp, an impoverished community of about 16,000 in central Gaza. An Israeli military spokesman said the goal of the operation was to arrest a leader of the radical Islamic Jihad organization, one of the main groups that have used suicide bombers against Israeli citizens.
"There were numerous attacks by Palestinians, with gunfire and dozens of grenades and massive fire all throughout the operation," the Israeli army spokesman said. No Israeli soldiers were reported killed or injured.
The target of the raid, Mohammed Saafin, 28, put up a fierce fight, firing on soldiers from the windows and roof of his home before being shot, the army spokesman said. The house was demolished by Israeli tanks and bulldozers after the battle.
Palestinian security sources and hospital officials said seven people were killed and about two dozen others were injured in gun battles that lasted for hours. The dead included a 4-year-old girl, Hanan Assar, who relatives said was shot in the stomach by a stray bullet as she huddled with her family inside her home. Two boys, ages 13 and 17, were also killed.
Later in the day, at about sunrise, Israeli forces occupied the region of Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip, which the militant Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, has frequently used to launch homemade Qassam rockets at communities just over the border in Israel. An unidentified man and two Palestinian navy police officers were killed during the operation, and hundreds of boys and men between the ages of 15 and 50 were rounded up by Israel and held for questioning, Palestinian security sources said.
Militants launched five Qassam missiles into Israel during the operation.
Moore reported from Ramallah.