Israeli forces kill Hamas activists in Gaza clashes

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The Independent Online

The fragile ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian factions was plunged into its greatest peril yesterday since it was called over four months ago.

The Israeli air strikes killed three Hamas militants in a house in the West Bank and another four driving in a Volkswagen van close to the centre of Gaza City.

The attacks came 24 hours after Hamas had claimed responsibility for firing a continuous barrage of rockets at Israeli targets, one of which took the life of a young woman at a kibbutz north of the Gaza strip. And it came five days after another faction, Islamic Jihad, killed five people in a suicide bombing at the coastal town of Netanya.

But Israel's decision to return to targeted assassinations of Hamas - as distinct from Islamic Jihad, which the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, declared would be pursued without limits after the Netanya killings - was not anticipated after PA security forces had moved into Hamas strongholds in Gaza City, triggering the most severe inter-Palestinian fighting for at least four years.

Palestinian security officials said that the van which the Israeli missile destroyed had been loaded with home-made rockets. The bodies of the militants, one of whom was a relative of the senior Hamas official, Ishamel Haniya, were taken to the Shifa Hospital.

After Thursday's rocket attacks, David Baker, an official in Mr Sharon's office, said that if the PA did not curb the militants, "we will". The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and his Interior Minister appeared to have taken the threat seriously, deploying significant numbers of its forces in the street and entering Zeitoun, a known Hamas base where militants last year blew up an Israeli armoured personnel carrier. Israelis officials insisted last night that the air strikes would strengthen Mr Abbas' hand by underlining the alternative was even tougher action by Israel.

At one point, PA security force units retreated under fire to a UN Relief Works Agency school on the edge of Zeitoun, in Sabra, from which they continued to exchange fire with militants. After being persuaded to leave it by UNRWA personnel, they took over a nearby house before the shooting stopped.

The fighting lasted for several hours through yesterday morning around Zeitoun, in the heart of which a PA armoured personnel carrier was still in flames 90 minutes after being hit by a Hamas rocket propelled grenade. Several hundred gathered close to the vehicle before firefighters arrived, while sporadic shooting continued and Hamas gunmen maintained a visible presence on street corners and around the burning vehicle.

One witness, Abu Hamza, 24, said: "After the vehicle was hit, some boys came with benzene [petrol] and matches and set fire to it."

PA officials interpreted the Hamas rocket fire on Thursday, which they fiercely denounced, as a deliberate attempt to undermine President Abbas' authority as he arrived in Gaza on that night. Speaking before the Israeli missile attacks, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the President's adviser said. Palestinian security forces had been given the "full right without restrictions to maintain law and order".

Anjad Nkhala, 20, who was injured after being shot in front of his home by a man he said was a member of the PA's special forces, said: "The answer is for Hamas to stay and the collaborators Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas' nom de guerre] and Nasser Yousef [the Interior Minister] to go."

But Ibrahim Abu Thuraya, a member of the Palestinian presidential security group Force 17, who was shot three times in the leg, said: "The factions shouldn't have shot at the Israelis. And we shouldn't be shooting at each other." At the Shifa mosque, the imam said at Friday prayers it was "forbidden" for Muslims to kill each other. "There is an elected authority and you should deal with grievances by dialogue," he said.

As Shaul Mofaz, Israel's Defence Minister indicated contingency plans for a ground incursion into Gaza, Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas spokesman, said the "Zionist enemy was to blame and that "the calm is blowing away in the wind".

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