Hamas leaders threatened a massive wave of suicide bombings yesterday after Israeli troops killed at least 15 Palestinians and wounded more than 40 during two gun battles in the Gaza Strip.
The dead included Hani Abu Skhaila, a Hamas fighter, and Mohammed Helles, the 17-year-old son of a local leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement who also led the Fatah youth organisation in Gaza.
Israeli security sources said Mr Skhaila was planning terrorist attacks in Israel. They claimed that he had been wanted by the Palestinian security services on suspicion of taking part in the ambush of a convoy in which three American officials were killed last October. He had survived an earlier assassination attempt by Israel.
Israeli officers said the fighting began before dawn in the Shijaia district of Gaza City. Troops were seeking to intercept gunmen who had been harassing soldiers and Jewish settlers with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives. They were said to have fired 130 mortars towards the isolated Netzarim community over the past two months. About 50 hit the settlement.
The Israelis said their forces were confronted with massive fire from AK-47 assault rifles, RPGs and hand grenades, as well as roadside bombs. In an operation that lasted 10 hours, they confirmed hits on at least 18 Palestinian gunmen. They also detonated an arms cache in a nearby house.
Palestinians reported 12 dead, seven from Hamas, one member of the Palestinian security services, the 17-year-old Fatah youth and three civilians. Local hospitals treated 42 wounded. Three more were killed in Rafah, near the Egyptian border, where a force of 10 tanks and armoured bulldozers had gone to seek and destroy tunnels used for smuggling arms. Doctors reported that a third casualty was brain-dead. The Israelis said they hit back after they met automatic fire and hand grenades.
Hamas called on all fighting cells throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem to "respond quickly to hit all the enemy positions it can reach with huge martyr operations". The day after a similar clash late last month, in which 12 Palestinians died, a suicide bomber killed 11 Israelis in Jerusalem.
Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a political leader of the militant organisation, branded Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, a terrorist. "He promised to end the intifada, but he is bringing his people only death, destruction and disasters," Mr Rantisi said.
Israel is determined to show it is fighting terrorism as rigorously as ever, despite Mr Sharon's plan to evacuate 17 settlements from Gaza. Security chiefs have warned the Prime Minister the Palestinians will celebrate the pullout as a victory.
The director of military intelligence, Major-General Aharon Ze'evi, told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday: "Terror will not weaken after the evacuation, not for a long time afterwards. The evacuation will be a further incentive for terror."
Shaul Mofaz, the Defence Minister, hinted before leaving on an official visit to London that he would propose keeping troops in the Gaza Strip as a bargaining card. They would have more freedom of manoeuvre after the settlers were removed.
Shimon Peres, the opposition Labour leader, argued yesterday that Mr Sharon should withdraw all troops and settlers from the Strip as soon as possible. The army could still control the situation from outside, he said. He also urged the government to seek an agreement with Egypt to stem the flow of arms through the Rafah border.
In a briefing with foreign correspondents, Mr Peres called on the European Union to offer Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians membership after a peace agreement. As a further incentive, the former prime minister suggested that Nato should admit Israel, Jordan, Palestine and possibly Iraq into its Partnership for Peace.
Meanwhile, an earthquake measuring five on the Richter scale yesterday shook Israel and its Arab neighbours. Emergency services reported no serious casualties or damage. Members of Israel's parliament, who first thought they had been bombed, suspended committee hearings and postponed a full-scale debate for two hours.Reuse content