Two Palestinians die and 25 injured in Gaza gun battle

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The Independent Online

Two Palestinians have died and 25 have been injured amid fierce fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinians near a block of Jewish settlements in Gaza.

A fierce firefight erupted early today between Israeli forces and Palestinians near a block of Jewish settlements in Gaza, killing two Palestinians and injuring at least 25 others, casting doubt on US efforts to convene a meeting of security commanders later in the day.

Palestinians said Israeli attack helicopters rocketed a Palestinian police post next to the Khan Yunis refugee camp, and tanks fired shells at the camp.

The Israeli military said there was a "very heavy" exchange of fire, but denied that helicopters were used.

Hospital doctors said at least 25 Palestinians were hurt in the Israeli assault. Others were trapped in the camp, and medical teams could not reach them because of the heavy gunfire, said Dr Heider Khader, director of Khan Yunis hospital.

The fresh violence followed a day of rocket and mortar exchanges between the two sides. A US–brokered meeting of security commanders, put off for the second time, was rescheduled for later Wednesday, a Palestinian official said, but the new outbreak might interfere again.

Eyewitnesses said an explosion, apparently a Palestinian mortar shell exploding at a Jewish settlement, set off the firefight near Khan Yunis. Palestinians said six Israeli tanks advanced toward the refugee camp, source of almost daily fire at the nearby bloc of Jewish settlements.

Tank fire levelled two houses in the refugee camp west of the city, witnesses said. One house collapsed on its occupants, including children, they said.

Three Palestinian reporters were among the injured, according to doctors, who said their wounds were not serious.

Palestinians said announcements made on mosque loudspeakers in the squalid, poverty–stricken shantytown called on residents and gunmen to take to the streets to defend themselves against Israeli aggression.

Israeli has been targeting Palestinian police headquarters and outposts with helicopter and tank fire and rockets, responding to Palestinian mortar barrages at Israeli settlements in Gaza and villages just outside the territory.

Palestinians charge that the Israeli attacks are aggression.

Palestinian official Tayeb Abdel Rahim said the meeting of security commanders would take place later today, in the presence of a US official. Abdel Rahim said it was essential for the US to understand that Israel "is conducting aggression and ... is not fulfilling agreements."

Yesterday, Israel fired rockets at Palestinian buildings in Gaza City and Dir al–Balach in central Gaza, killing a Palestinian police doctor, retaliation for Palestinian mortar attacks. An Israeli eyewitness said he saw a rocket fly overhead toward Gaza, indicating that the rocket was fired from inside Israel. The Israeli military would not comment.

Visiting an Israeli army base during the exchange, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he had a comprehensive plan to stop the violence and pledged that "security would be restored."

In an interview released later by an Israeli newspaper, Sharon said that he would not evacuate any Jewish settlements, even in the framework of a peace accord. He told the Haaretz daily that the settlements protect Israeli resources and give the nation strategic depth.

Palestinians demand the removal of all settlements from the West Bank and Gaza, where they want to set up a state. The United States has labeled the settlements an obstacle to peace.

Meanwhile, a leading human rights organization criticized both Israel and the Palestinians for abuses in the tense, divided West Bank city of Hebron in a report released today.

The New York–based Human Rights Watch group charged that Israeli forces overreact with lethal force to Palestinian attacks and allow Jewish settlers to attack Palestinians and destroy their property.

The report criticized Palestinians for firing at Israeli settlers, saying that the settlements are illegal, but the settlers themselves are civilians and must not be targeted. The report said some of the Palestinian gunmen belong to Arafat's Fatah movement.

Hebron is divided into Israeli and Palestinian–controlled zones. Israeli soldiers patrol about 20 percent of the city, protecting about 450 Jewish settlers who live in three enclaves in the center of the city.