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Gaza fighting kills 15 Palestinians, wounds 50

By Associated Press
Published February 12, 2004

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israel sent troops and tanks into a densely populated neighborhood and a refugee camp Wednesday to search for Palestinian militants, setting off the bloodiest day of fighting in the Gaza Strip in 16 months. Fifteen Palestinians were killed and more than 50 were wounded.

Hamas, the militant Islamic group, responded with an ominous vow of retaliation, urging all of its cells throughout Gaza and the West Bank to attack. Similar calls in the past have been followed within days - sometimes within hours - by suicide bombings in Israel.

The fiercest fighting took place in the Shajaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City, where dozens of youths stood in the streets watching the battle as bullets whizzed by. At one point, a gunman picked up a young schoolboy by his backpack and whisked him out of the battle zone.

"There was great resistance by armed cells in a very densely populated area," said Col. Yoel Strick, a division commander in the Gaza Strip. There were no Israeli casualties, he said.

The dead included a senior Hamas activist and the son of a Palestinian leader.

The violence was linked by some analysts to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposals for a unilateral pullout from most of Gaza. With many Israelis, including the military's intelligence chief, concerned that such a move might be viewed by Palestinians as a sign of weakness, analysts warned that more military action in the territory could lie ahead.

Senior military officers have said privately that pressure on the Palestinians should be increased ahead of any withdrawal.

"That is presumably what we saw today and what we will see more of," said Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher.

The army said it entered the Gaza City neighborhood to search for militants who had fired rockets at nearby Jewish settlements. It said the fighting broke out after militants fired missiles at Israeli tanks.

Twelve militants were killed and more than 40 were wounded, Palestinian doctors said. Among the dead were Mohammed Hilles, 18, son of Ahmed Hilles, the top leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction in Gaza, and senior Hamas activist Hani Abu Skhaila.

Hamas said Abu Skhaila had survived two previous Israeli attempts to kill him, including a missile strike on his car in June in which he suffered shrapnel wounds.

Hamas said he had participated in several deadly attacks on Israelis, including a suicide bombing last month that killed four people at a border checkpoint.

In a separate raid in the Rafah refugee camp along the Gaza-Egypt border, Israeli troops killed three Palestinians, including a militant, as they searched for tunnels used for arms smuggling. They demolished three houses and razed citrus and olive groves.

The fighting was the deadliest in Gaza since 19 Palestinians were killed in clashes in Khan Younis on Oct. 7, 2002.

Hamas' militant wing issued a statement calling on all of its cells to carry out "huge martyrdom operations ... everywhere in Palestine," referring to suicide bombings in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. While Hamas routinely vows retaliation for Israeli attacks, it rarely issues such widespread calls to arms.

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 01:00:30]

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