Tags: Israeli | Tanks | Roll | into | Gaza

Israeli Tanks Roll into Gaza

Wednesday, 01 May 2002 12:00 AM

Residents of the Rafah camp, home to 80,000 Palestinian refugees, said tanks drove about 300 meters (yards) into the Palestinian-controlled area under intensive gunfire.

They said Palestinian militants and Israeli troops exchanged fire at the outskirts of the camp, killing one Palestinian and injuring three others.

Maj. Assaf Librati, the Israeli army's spokesman in the Southern Command, denied that the troops had penetrated the autonomous Palestinian area.

He said the troops were engaged in periodic searches for tunnels dug by the Palestinians under the Israeli strip to Egypt for arms smuggling. He asserted that the search had been restricted to an area of military operations that is under Israeli control. He was referring to the so-called "pink area" denoted on maps.

The town of Rafah and the nearby refugee camp lie on the border with Egypt.

"There was serious resistance," Librati said. "There was a lot of shooting and hand grenade [attacks]." He said Israeli troops returned fire and detained four Palestinians suspected of being militants.

The Israeli incursion raised fears among residents of Gaza that the army is planning to implement a large-scale incursion like that carried out three weeks ago in Jenin and other Palestinian areas in the West Bank.

Earlier, Palestinian witnesses said Israeli tank fire had killed a 2-year-old girl, Huda Abu Shaloof, in Rafah.

They said that after one tank entering the town was damaged by a roadside bomb, another fired several shells -- one of which struck the girl's house.

Medical officials at Rafah hospital said she was hit in the head by shrapnel, adding that three other people in the house -- the child's father, Mustafa Abu Shaloof, and two siblings, ages 4 and 6 -- were also injured, one of them seriously.

Librati blamed the militants for planting the bomb in an area near civilians.

"It's a gamble," he said. "Someone who detonates a bomb in such an area must take it [presence of civilians] into account."

The new Israeli deployment came as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in New York that he is awaiting advice from the Security Council before deciding whether to disband a fact-finding mission to Jenin.

The team has been waiting a week in Geneva, Switzerland, for Israeli acceptance so that it can begin trying to find out what really happened in the Jenin camp, where the Israeli military has been accused of war crimes.

Meanwhile, Palestinian witnesses said shooting erupted briefly late Tuesday night near Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters, surrounded by Israeli troops. The Palestinian leader was unharmed.

Israel and the Palestinians agreed this week to a U.S.-brokered compromise that would lift the Israeli siege on Arafat in return for the West Bank imprisonment of wanted Palestinians under U.S. and British supervision.

The military incursion in Rafah came as Israel announced the withdrawal of all its military forces from the Palestinian sector of the West Bank town of Hebron. But the deputy commander of the Judea division operating there, Col. Moshe Hager, said troops will stay on the outskirts of Hebron, ready to return if necessary.

The Israel Defense Forces issued a statement early Wednesday, saying troops "completed their mission in the city of Hebron and left town." They are deployed in areas where Israel is responsible for security, a military spokesman said.

The army detained 150 Palestinians suspected of involvement in militant activities and 52 of them had been on Israel's wanted list, the statement added. One of the latest was Louis Kapisha, a senior Fatah Tanzim activist found carrying explosive charges, the army spokesman said.

The troops had taken over Hebron before dawn Monday, after Palestinian gunmen penetrated the nearby settlement of Adora, shooting people as they went from house to house. The gunmen killed a girl, 5, cowering under her bed; a woman who was still in bed; and wounded several other people. The army said it was out to foil more attacks and found a car with a bomb, an anti-tank Lau missile, and suitcases with explosives.

A spokesman for TIPH, the Temporary Interim Presence in Hebron, Ib Knutsen, said nine Palestinians were killed. There were no Israeli casualties, Hager said.

The TIPH's spokesman, Knutsen, told United Press International that the tanks caused significant damage to roads, electric cables and cars, but there was "surprisingly little damage to buildings from shooting."

"It is not immediately apparent what has been destroyed," he said.

In Bethlehem, 26 Palestinians were allowed to leave the besieged Church of the Nativity.

But there is no agreement yet on how to solve the almost-month-long standoff between Israeli troops that surround the church, which is believed to be Jesus' birthplace, and the estimated 30 wanted Palestinian militants who are inside along with up to 100 other people, including clerics.

The departure of 26 people, some of them Palestinian policemen, followed an agreement between the two sides in which Palestinians gave Israel their names to check against a "wanted" list. Israel agreed to allow them to leave once their identities were confirmed.

The Rev. Ibrahim Faltas, a Franciscan priest, and Palestinian lawyer Anton Salman brought the men out of the church one by one. Next, they opened their jackets to show they were not carrying bombs and were then body-searched.

"It's not a breakthrough, but it's important," Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, a member of Israel's negotiating team, told UPI.

The first person led out of the church was a top Palestinian security officer, who was driven away separately. Another person was taken out on a stretcher and tranported to a hospital.

Israel has offered militants still in the church the choice of exile or facing its courts. Palestinians have rejected the options.

A total of about 48 people and two corpses have left the church so far, including eight Palestinian teenagers and two clerics. The two people were killed during fighting.

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.

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Residents of the Rafah camp, home to 80,000 Palestinian refugees, said tanks drove about 300 meters (yards) into the Palestinian-controlled area under intensive gunfire. They said Palestinian militants and Israeli troops exchanged fire at the outskirts of the camp,...
Wednesday, 01 May 2002 12:00 AM
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