Israel kills six in tank attack on Gaza camp

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The Independent Online

At keast six Palestinians, including two children aged eight and 12, were killed by Israeli forces yesterday in the biggest military operation in the Gaza Strip for three months, witnesses said.

Residents of Rafah refugee camp contacted by phone told of families fleeing in panic from their homes as Israeli bulldozers advanced on them, and civilians, including children, so badly wounded their limbs had to be amputated.

The Israeli army said the aim of the operation was to find and cut off tunnels used by Palestinian militants to smuggle arms across the border with Egypt. But with the Israeli Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, planning to call up reserves at the end of a week-long Jewish holiday, there is concern that the incursion may be the prelude to wider military action.

It was impossible to verify accounts from Rafah, in the south of the Gaza Strip, yesterday, because the area has been almost entirely cut off since Saturday, when the Israeli army cut up the coastal road south from Gaza City and closed a military checkpoint on the only road that was open, trapping thousands of residents in the Rafah area.

Up to 80 Israeli tanks, bulldozers and armoured Jeeps were on the move, one witness said, starting at 11pm on Thursday. The operation was confined to the refugee camp. There were street battles with Palestinian militants, and the Israeli army said shoulder-launched rockets were fired and grenades thrown.

Rafah refugee camp sprawls close to the border with Egypt, overlooked by Israeli watchtowers, and the houses are pocked with bullet-holes. "Three bulldozers entered our neighbourhood, and 20 armoured vehicles, APCs and tanks," Iyad Barhoum, a 24-year-old resident of the camp, said by phone. "They spoke on microphones asking people to evacuate their homes within half an hour. They said they are going to stay for a week. They occupied the rooftops of six buildings.

"Suddenly, a bulldozer was hitting the back of my house. We were 10 people. We ran away. I saw barefooted women carrying children, with hardly any clothes on. I and my family went to Kholafa al-Rashedeen mosque. The army dug holes around my house. I am in the mosque with 200 people. Our house is 150 metres from the border. Now it is partly demolished."

Reports from Rafah said most of the casualties were caused when an Israeli helicopter fired a missile into a building. The Israeli army claimed it fired at gunmen. Mr Barhoum said a missile hit a house as those inside tried to flee. "There were about 150 people in the house of my relative, Mousa Barhoum," he said "As the people started leaving, a missile hit. Mousa was hit in his face and foot. Doctors amputated his foot. Reem Mousa Abu Jazar was hit in the face and legs.

"Louai Barhoum, my cousin, was shot and his right arm was amputated. He is 11. I helped him across the street; later on, I learnt he had been shot."

Residents identified the dead as eight-year-old Ibrahim Qrenawi, 12-year-old Sami Salah, Mohammad Abd al-Wahab, a 23-year-old Hamas militant, and Naher abu Taha, a militant from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, also 23.

It was not clear whether Alaa Mansour, who was also killed, was a civilian or a militant. A sixth body was not identified. Dr Majdi Khalifa said Abu Yousef al-Najjar Hospital had received 43 wounded, and had transferred 15 serious cases to other hospitals. Some reports spoke of at least 50 wounded.

The Israeli army said it had gone into Rafah because it had intelligence that Palestinian militants were trying to smuggle anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles through the tunnels under the Egyptian border at Rafah.

Mr Barhoum added: "Last week they destroyed 21 houses, to destroy two tunnels. There is no tunnel in my house, because I live in it. I refused to sell. For the past three years, merchants have been buying houses and paying large amounts for them, to dig tunnels. They smuggle weapons: rifles and bullets. A group of Egyptians are involved. We are the victims of both sides.

"This will not decrease the number of tunnels. It will increase it, because the Israeli army makes no distinction between the guilty and the innocent. If any house can be destroyed, like today, then people will sell their homes to these merchants."