Missile Strikes in Gaza Kill 5

Times Staff Writer

Missile strikes in the northern Gaza Strip killed five Palestinians and wounded 17 today as Israeli forces pressed forward with their campaign to stop rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.

Israeli military officials said the two missile attacks were aimed at Palestinian fighters who were observed working with explosives and preparing a rocket launcher, according to Associated Press.

The attack took place in the crowded Jabaliya refugee camp, which was the center of violent clashes Thursday that killed at least 27 Palestinians and three Israelis in one of the highest single-day death tolls during four years of conflict.

At least 100 Palestinians were injured in the clashes, Palestinian hospital officials said.

Most of the fatalities came as Israel carried out a rare incursion into the Jabaliya camp, a densely populated neighborhood of 100,000 people that is a hotbed of Palestinian militant activity.

Israel generally has limited its military actions to the outskirts to avoid combat in cramped quarters.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz announced that the operation -- aimed at ending rocket attacks against Israelis -- would be prolonged, raising the prospect of continued clashes. The assault had the approval of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his security Cabinet.

In Thursday's violence, at least seven Palestinians were reportedly killed by an Israeli tank shell near a crowded market in the camp.

A Palestinian ambulance driver said the victims were bystanders killed when the tank opened fire on about 25 people clustered near a school where Israeli forces were gathered. At least 15 others were injured, hospital officials said.

Israeli military sources said the tank returned fire after Palestinian fighters launched an antitank missile from the market area and hurled a bomb that injured three soldiers. The tank shell appeared to have hit the fighters, but Israeli commanders acknowledged that civilians were also struck.

Thursday's fighting came on the second full day of an Israeli military sweep to prevent Palestinian fighters from firing Kassam rockets -- improvised weapons that fall almost daily on Israeli targets within and near the Gaza Strip, although frequently without hitting anything.

Rockets struck the Israeli town of Sderot on Wednesday, killing two children, ages 2 and 4, and wounding more than two dozen other people as Israel was preparing to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

After that incident, Sharon ordered Israeli commanders to take steps to prevent further attacks, including seizing control of a broader swath of land inside the Gaza Strip to push the rockets out of range of targets inside Israel.

Sharon was at his private Sycamore Ranch a few miles from Sderot when the Wednesday attack took place.

After the assault, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said it was time for Israel to take action against Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Gideon Ezra, the acting public security minister, said Israel should clamp down in Gaza with sufficient force to encourage Palestinian civilians to spurn fighters in their midst.

A series of recent Israeli military operations, some of them lasting for weeks, has so far failed to stop the rocket attacks. A mortar attack last week killed an Israeli woman in the Neve Dekalim settlement in the southern Gaza Strip.

"We will continue this operation until we are absolutely certain that the firing of these rockets against innocent civilians will stop," Raanan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman, said Thursday.

Palestinian officials called upon the United States, Russia, the United Nations and European governments to press Sharon to stop the operation, which they said cast doubt on Israel's stated plans to pull settlers and troops out of Gaza by late next year.

"This is a dangerous military escalation -- craziness," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Cabinet member. "This is destroying Gaza. This is preparation to reoccupy Gaza, not to evacuate Gaza."

Thursday's fighting was described as fierce, and witnesses reported the sounds of steady shooting and tank fire.

Israeli forces destroyed about 50 homes as they entered the camp, just north of Gaza City, Palestinian officials said. Israeli officials said some buildings were damaged, but as a result of roadside bombs aimed at the advancing troops.

Palestinian hospital officials said at least five children younger than 14 were among the dead.

The scene at the refugee camp's Kamal Adwan Hospital was near bedlam, as the dead and wounded were carried in and grieving relatives arrived soon after.

Outside, loudspeakers mounted on cars announced the names of the dead.

It was the most intensive fighting in Gaza since Israel carried out a raid against weapons-smuggling tunnels in the Rafah refugee camp in May. Then, about 40 Palestinians were killed during several days of combat, which also played out in the midst of densely populated neighborhoods, with residents huddled in their homes as gunmen and soldiers battled.

The number of Palestinians killed Thursday was the most in a single day since 35 died in April 2002 during an Israeli operation in the West Bank called Defensive Shield, according to an Associated Press tally.

That operation followed a suicide bombing that killed 29 people who were celebrating Passover at a hotel in the Israeli town of Netanya.

As the latest clashes raged in the Jabaliya camp, Palestinian militants killed two Israeli soldiers and a civilian during attacks in northern Gaza, officials said. One soldier was slain in predawn darkness when two gunmen attacked a lookout post overlooking Jabaliya. The attackers were killed when Israeli soldiers fired back.

An Israeli woman was shot as she jogged in the Jewish settlement of Elei Sinai, a beach community at the northern end of the coastal strip. An Israeli military medic was killed when he arrived to provide medical aid.

Special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in the Jabaliya refugee camp and Times wire services contributed to this report.

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