BUREIJ REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli troops
carried out their deadliest raid in Gaza in 17 months yesterday,
part of a surge of bloodshed ahead of a possible Israeli withdrawal
from the coastal strip.

Beth Dykstra
Israeli troops battled hundreds of Palestinian gunmen yesterday, killing 10 militants and four civilians in the deadliest Gaza raid in 17 months. (AP PHOTO)

Fourteen Palestinians were killed and 81 wounded in more than
six hours of fighting on the edge of the Bureij refugee camp.

The battle pitted Palestinians armed with assault rifles,
anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers against Israeli troops
firing from helicopters, tanks and rooftop sniper positions.
Children chased tanks, throwing stones. Among the dead were three
boys, ages 8, 12 and 15.

The Israeli military said the purpose of the raid was to put
Palestinian militants on the defensive and prevent them from
carrying out attacks on Israelis. But residents of Bureij said
soldiers did not try to make arrests or search for arms caches.

The Palestinian Authority denounced the raid as “state
terrorism” and urged the international community to
intervene. Palestinians said Israeli soldiers were trying to draw
out militants in what appeared to be a new tactic.

Armed groups routinely exhort their members over mosque
loudspeakers to confront approaching Israeli troops, despite vastly
inferior weapons and considerable risk. Yesterday was no
exception.

After the battle, a militant leader took the highly unusual step
of appealing to his forces not to fall into the trap again.

“The Palestinian people are now uniting in the trenches of
resistance,” said Islamic Jihad leader Mohammed al-Hindi,
“but we also call on the sons of the resistance not to be
dragged into battles forced upon us by the (Israeli)
occupation.”

Yesterday’s fighting was part of a recent rise in violence
that has been attributed to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon’s proposal to withdraw from most, if not all, of Gaza
and parts of the West Bank if there is no progress toward peace in
coming months.

Each side seems to be positioning itself to claim a withdrawal
as a victory — Israel by pounding the militants hard before a
pullout, and the armed groups by stepping up attacks to create the
impression they are chasing the Israelis out.

In the past week, Israeli helicopter gunships have struck twice,
killing six militants and a boy in missile attacks in Gaza City. On
Saturday, three militant Palestinian groups sent bomb-laden jeeps
in a suicide mission aimed at blowing up an Israeli checkpoint on
the edge of Gaza. Six Palestinians were killed in the blasts and
exchanges of fire.

The raid was the deadliest in Gaza since October 2002, when 19
Palestinians were killed in an Israeli operation in the Khan Younis
refugee camp.

The dead — 10 militants and four civilians — were
given a joint funeral. Tens of thousands of Palestinians marched in
the streets, and masked Hamas militants pledged revenge. Hamas has
carried out dozens of suicide bombings against Israelis during 41
months of conflict.

One Hamas gunman told mourners the militants are sending a
message to Sharon that “we are ready for
confrontation.”

Avi Pazner, an Israeli government spokesman, said such raids
help save Israeli lives. “Terrorism is pouring out of this
refugee camp, and we have to stop it,” Pazner said of
Bureij.

There are concerns that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza could
push the crowded, impoverished territory into chaos. Already, rival
groups are vying for power, as the Palestinian Authority has lost
much of its influence, and attacks on Palestinian officials are on
the increase.

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