A Long Deadly Day in Gaza as Israel Fights Way Into Camp

By GREG MYRE

New York Times

October 1, 2004

NISANIT, Gaza Strip, Sept. 30 — In the bloodiest day in more than two years, 28 Palestinians and 3 Israelis were killed today as Israeli troops pushed into a densely packed refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip and battled militants darting among the narrow alleys.

The Israelis fired from tanks and armored personnel carriers as they edged into the Jabaliya refugee camp, just north of Gaza City, that is home to more than 100,000 Palestinians. Masked Palestinians fired automatic rifles and antitank missiles, and planted explosives along the narrow, sandy streets.

The Israelis rolled into northern Gaza on Tuesday night following the latest upsurge in Palestinian rocket fire. The heavy fighting today, combined with warnings from Israeli officials, pointed to the possibility of a massive military offensive in Gaza directed at the Palestinian factions responsible for the almost daily attacks.

Throughout four years of fighting, the Israeli military has been reluctant to enter the congested cities and refugee camps in Gaza, where it is difficult for its armored vehicles to operate. Even limited Israeli ground incursions in Gaza have resulted in large numbers of casualties among both Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.

However, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has expressed determination to proceed with his unilateral plan to withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza, and the persistent fighting is complicating his efforts.

Army radio reported that Mr. Sharon had approved a major offensive that would involve re-occupying parts of Northern Gaza.

"This will only make the prime minister more intent to pursue his disengagement plan," Gideon Meir, a senior official in the Foreign Ministry, said of the latest turmoil. "The Palestinians want to convince the world that Israel is withdrawing because of terrorism. We know this is not the truth."

About half of the Palestinian dead were militants, with the other half civilians, according to witnesses and the overburdened staff at Kamal Adwan Hospital, which treated about 100 wounded Palestinians.

In the deadliest single episode, an Israeli tank fired a shell at Palestinian militants who had just hit an armored Israeli vehicle with an antitank missile, wounding three soldiers, the military said. The tank shell killed 7 Palestinians and injured about 20, with civilians accounting for most of the casualties, according to Palestinian witnesses and the hospital.

The Israeli army commander in Gaza, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, acknowledged the civilian casualties and expressed regret. However, he also accused the militants of using civilians as shields.

The Israelis also bulldozed about 20 homes on a narrow road leading into the camp, apparently to allow better access for armored vehicles, Palestinian residents said.

Muhammad Dahlan, a former security chief in Gaza and still an influential figure, said in a statement that the Israeli operation would "result in a bloodbath on both sides because the Palestinian people cannot remain silent in the face of this aggression."

On the Israeli side, a kindergarten teacher was shot dead while on her regular morning jog along a road linking three Jewish settlements on the northern edge of Gaza, just a couple miles from Jabaliya.

With a heavy nighttime fog providing cover, two Palestinian gunmen apparently breached a fence that screens both sides of the road. The gunmen fatally shot the teacher outside the Nisanit settlement and then gunned down an army paramedic who arrived moments later. Israeli soldiers shot dead both gunmen, officials said.

In a settlement with 300 families, most with small children, virtually everyone knew the slain teacher, Shula Batito, 36, who had run the kindergarten for more than a decade.

"All the kids knew her, all the parents knew her, and everyone loved her," said Helena Edry, Ms. Batito's next-door neighbor.

Tal Barda, 35, a construction worker who has lived in Nisanit for the last 12 years, said: "Every day we hear shooting, and then helicopters and tanks on the move. You can never feel safe."

Near Jabaliya, an Israeli soldier was killed when two Palestinians opened fire with rifles and grenades at the entrance to a military post. The Palestinians were then shot dead, the military said.

Israel has staged repeated incursions into northern Gaza, but at best, the rocket fire has been reduced only temporarily.

Despite the large military presence, Palestinians fired a rocket on Wednesday night that killed two Israeli children, ages 2 and 4, in the town of Sederot, in southern Israel, just outside Gaza's fence.

Israelis were outraged by the deaths, which came just before the holiday of Sukkot, fall's harvest festival. Israeli officials warned that the Israeli operation in Gaza would be intensified, and today's fighting appeared to confirm that.

However, it is not clear whether the Israelis will be able to stop the rocket fire despite their vast military superiority.

Palestinians are able to set up and fire their simple, homemade Qassam rockets, and then flee the area within minutes, making it difficult for the Israeli forces to track them down.

Most of the rockets have been fired by Hamas, which took responsibility for the attack that killed the two children on Wednesday.

"Thank God the holy warriors have designed these rockets. They are shaking the Jewish people," said Motea al-Sharafi, whose brother was killed during clashes on Wednesday. "This is the way we will take revenge."

Over the past few years, the Palestinians often fired from the cover of citrus and olive groves in northeast Gaza. In response, Israeli bulldozers flattened many of the groves, driving the Palestinians deeper inside Gaza.

The rockets carry a small payload and have a maximum range of about five miles, according to the Israeli military. They are extremely inaccurate and rarely cause casualties or damage.

But Wednesday's volley, which landed between two residential buildings, injured a dozen or so Israelis in addition to killing the two children.

The combined Israeli-Palestinian death toll of 31 was the highest single day count since Israel carried out a sweeping incursion of the West Bank in March and April of 2002.

Taghrood El Khodary contributed reporting from Gaza.