Twelve Palestinians killed in Gaza clashes

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The Independent Online

At least 12 Palestinians died and more than 50 were wounded as Israeli troops battled with Palestinian gunmen in two areas of the Gaza Strip today.

The fiercest fighting took place in the Shajaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City. Eleven people were killed and more than 40 were wounded in fighting that erupted before dawn and continued for hours.

Explosions and the crackle of gunfire echoed in the dense city streets as the Israeli army blew up the house of a Hamas militant and sent tanks into the neighborhood. Nine Palestinian militants, including a senior Hamas activist and the son of a prominent Palestinian leader, were among the dead.

In a separate raid in the Rafah area along the Gaza-Egypt border, troops killed a Palestinian man as they searched for tunnels used for arms smuggling. The forces demolished three houses and razed citrus and olive groves.

In Gaza City, Mohammed Hilles, 18, the son of Ahmed Hilles, the top leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction in Gaza, was killed. Senior Hamas activist Hani Abu Skhaila, who survived a previous Israeli attempt to kill him, was also killed in the fighting.

At least nine of the wounded were in critical condition, doctors said. The wounded included at least three boys who were hit as they watched the battle from side streets, witnesses and doctors said.

Dozens of boys stood in the streets watching the battle as gunfire whizzed by. Masked gunmen took up positions in front of a building and ordered civilians out of the area. At one point, a gunman picked up a young schoolboy by his backpack and whisked him out of the battle zone.

When Abu Skhaila's death was announced at a Gaza hospital, Hamas militants in camouflage uniforms waiting outside fired guns in the air and yelled "God is great" before jumping in a car to return to the fighting, witnesses said.

The military said troops fired in response to anti-tank missiles shot at tanks in the operation to search for militants responsible for firing rockets at nearby Jewish settlements.

The battle was continuing at midmorning, witnesses said. They said dozens of Palestinian fighters were confronting Israeli tanks.

The army described the scene as a "true battle zone," saying the firing was "hysterical." It said the Palestinians were firing anti-tank missiles and attempting to attack troops with powerful bombs.

The fighting was the deadliest in Gaza since eight Palestinians were killed in battles on 28 January.

Also, Israeli forces, including more than 10 tanks and several armored bulldozers, moved into the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza-Egypt border, residents said. Five Palestinians were injured in exchanges of fire in the area, they said.

The military said soldiers were looking for tunnels used by Palestinians to smuggle in weapons.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Israeli operations "undermine" efforts to work out a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers.

Yesterday, the chief of Israeli military intelligence said evacuation of Israeli settlements, part of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's emerging disengagement plan, could be interpreted by Palestinian militants as a victory for terrorism.