Gaza violence erupts after Israeli incursion

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An Israeli soldier and seven Palestinians - including at least six armed militants - were killed yesterday in fierce exchanges of fire after one of the heaviest single incursions into northern Gaza in more than four months of military operations.

The casualties came yesterday morning after infantry and armoured vehicles, backed by at least one unmanned aerial drone, according to witnesses, moved into the town of Beit Hanoun, from which many rocket attacks into Israel have been launched.

The Israeli soldier was the first killed in more than six weeks during a military campaign which began last June after the kidnap by Gaza militants of the Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit. It has resulted in the deaths of more than 300 Palestinians, including many civilians.

The raid was launched hours before a meeting of Israel's inner security cabinet, which yesterday decided to intensify pressure against Gaza militants and to continue preparations for a more "extensive" action. But it decided against an immediate large-scale expansion of the operation, which Israeli media quoted military sources as saying would wait at least until after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit to Washington in mid November.

The "strategic threats" minister, the right-wing Avigdor Lieberman, was reported by colleagues to have said at the cabinet meeting that Israel should use in Gaza the methods used by the Russian Army in Chechnya.

In contrast Yossi Beilin, the leader of the Israeli left-wing Meretz Party, said that the military pressure would not stop the Qassam rockets into Israel, eight of which were launched yesterday, one slightly injuring a resident of the border town of Sderot. He said that instead Israel should promise to release $60m (£31m) a month of duties withheld from Palestinians provided that the rockets stopped.

As Israeli troops enforced a curfew on Beit Hanoun, one local woman, Masuz Abu Hamsha 60, injured by what she said was shrapnel from a rocket fired by a drone, said from Kamal Adwan hospital that she had been watching from her window at around 1.30am when four gunmen had stopped an ambulance to check it did not contain Israeli special forces.

She said: "They found Palestinians inside and let the ambulance go but then the rocket landed and they were torn to pieces." She said she and several of her relatives who had gone to help had been injured by a second rocket. An ambulance officer, Khalil Sidawi 52, standing behind the cover of a building on the edge of Beit Hanoun, said he had had just taken two wounded gunmen to the hospital after they were shot on the adjacent main north-south road by Israeli forces.

He said: "The Israelis continued shooting at the men, as we were trying to move forward to pick them up." He said he had eventually picked up the militants, dressed in civilian clothes, but had left their weapons.

He added that he picked up three other wounded men from the centre of the town early yesterday morning - two of whom had been armed - but that since then Israeli forces had prevented another six ambulances leaving for several hours.

A masked spokesman for the Hamas military wing told reporters in Gaza City that that the inhabitants of Sderot should "leave" and that the rocket attacks would continue as long as "Israel continues its crimes".

The army said that the militants had fired anti-tank missiles in yesterday's fighting. Rami Ehkwrat, 24, an injured Hamas militant, said he had engaged Israeli special forces in the town's built-up area with rifles, mortars and some anti-armour explosive devices. But he derided speculation that it had acquired sophisticated anti-tank missiles. "They have a range of three kilometres. If we had them we would have stopped the Israelis coming in," he said.