Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships drove into the heart of densely populated Gaza City before dawn today, setting off a round of intense, close-quarters combat with Palestinian gunmen that left at least 12 Palestinians dead and dozens of others wounded, witnesses and hospital officials said.
The incursion, the deepest into the Gaza Strip's largest city in nearly 2 1/2 years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was the bloodiest strike in three months in Gaza. It came two days before an election in which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to receive a mandate from voters to press ahead with his policy of answering Palestinian attacks against Israelis with overwhelming military force.
Throughout the predawn hours, terrified Palestinians huddled in their homes as thunderous explosions and bursts of heavy machine-gun fire tore through the crowded streets of the Zaitoun neighborhood, a stronghold of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. Red arcs of tracer bullets lighted up the sky.
Over the din of fighting, calls for resistance rang out from the loudspeakers of neighborhood mosques: "Come out! All armed men, come out and defend the honor of Palestine!"
Israeli troops came under "massive" fire from Palestinians wielding automatic rifles, antitank rockets and a variety of explosive devices, a military spokesman said. He said the soldiers returned fire and killed at least six gunmen. No Israeli casualties were reported.
Israeli armored vehicles pushed to within 100 yards of tree-lined Palestine Square, considered the center of the ramshackle metropolis. Since fighting began in fall 2000, Israeli helicopters have rocketed landmark targets in the city, including Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's seaside headquarters, but until now, ground troops had never penetrated this far.
Ambulances and private cars ferried the wounded to the city's main hospital. There, doctors struggled to treat dozens of people, some reported to be gunmen and some civilians.
At least 42 people were treated for burns and wounds from bullets and shrapnel, doctors said, and eight of the injured were said to be in critical condition. The death toll was the highest in the Gaza Strip since October, when 17 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli missile strike that went awry in the southern city of Khan Yunis.
An Israeli military spokesman said the target of today's operation was "terrorist infrastructure," but declined to be more specific. In incursions such as this one, which lasted only a few hours, Israeli troops' aim is usually to hunt Palestinian fugitives, destroy caches of weaponry or carry out reprisals, such as blowing up militants' homes.
While fighting raged, a huge blaze broke out in the Shajaiyeh neighborhood in the eastern part of the city, in an industrial area. Palestinian witnesses said the fire appeared to have been set by a helicopter-fired missile, but the army said it wasn't clear how the blaze began.
Over the months of fighting, raids such as today's have been much more common in West Bank towns and cities than in the Gaza Strip. However, this was the second such strike in three days in Gaza.
On Friday, troops and tanks moved into the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun and blew up four overpasses that Palestinians had been using as launchpads for rockets and mortar shells aimed both at Jewish settlements in Gaza and at Israeli communities across the border. One rocket landed last week near the Israeli town of Sderot, not far from the prime minister's sheep ranch in the Negev desert.
Sharon, whose Likud Party is forecast to easily win Tuesday's general elections, has adopted an unyielding stance toward the Palestinians, saying there will be no peace negotiations as long as suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks continue.