Israeli tanks enter Gaza 'in deepest incursion for years'

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Israeli forces entered Gaza City in the early hours of this morning with Palestinian officials claiming the incursion was the deepest for two years.

Israeli forces entered Gaza City in the early hours of this morning with Palestinian officials claiming the incursion was the deepest for two years.

Witnesses claimed the forces rolled into the central Talalhawa neighbourhood, in an area where the headquarters of the Palestinian Preventive Security and the studios of Palestinian state television are located. The Israeli army refused to comment.

Troops also swept into the neighbourhood of Sabra, which is home to many members of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, including its spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

Yesterday soldiers backed by tanks and helicopter gunships had stormed back into Nablus. Palestinians were seen being rounded up by the soldiers. The men were ordered to stand in a line facing a wall and the women were ordered to sit on the ground. The Israeli army said 30 wanted militants had been arrested. The Israeli authorities said the incursion was a response to the murder of five people in a kibbutz on Sunday, including two children and their mother as she read them a bedtime story, by a suspected Palestinian gunman. The army said it believed that the order for the killings came from militants in Nablus.

About 100 tanks entered the city in the early-morning darkness, according to witnesses. Soldiers were firing in the air as they advanced. Most of the operation appeared to be centred on the Casbah area of the Old City, a maze of narrow lanes that was sealed off by the soldiers. Explosions could be heard coming from the area, witnesses said, apparently the sound of soldiers blowing open doors, and there were sporadic exchanges of gunfire, but there were no reports of casualties by last night.

So the misery continues in Nablus. The tanks were already on the city streets ­ but not in these numbers. Many of the historic buildings of the Old City are in ruins, demolished by the Israeli army in April. The city spent months living under an almost constant curfew. More recently, desperate to return to work, local people began to defy the curfew en masse, children walking to school past the barrels of tanks.

In April, several members of a single family were crushed to death when Israeli soldiers demolished their house while they were still inside. The signs yesterday were that the Israeli authorities want to avoid the international condemnation they came under then, and were treading a little more carefully. There was little sign of heavy resistance from militants, of the sort that led to street-to-street fighting in April.

But there will be immediate fears for those who were detained yesterday. Human rights groups have documented extensive evidence that Palestinians detained seven months ago were tortured and subjected to degrading treatment. Hundreds of detainees are already being held in prison.

Residents of the city, speaking by mobile phone, said there had initially been gunfights, but that the situation had quietened. They said they had already stockpiled food in the expectation of a new incursion. Hassan Shakhshir, a pharmacist, said the soldiers had taken over his house and ordered him and his family to stay in two rooms.

Israeli media reported yesterday that, despite the claim that this operation was a response to the Kibbutz Metzer murders, it was already being planned before they took place. The operation is apparently modelled on a recent incursion into Jenin.