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Israeli soldiers kill a guerrilla chief

Times Staff Writer

Israeli forces trying to disrupt rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip killed a militant commander and six other Palestinians on Monday during one of the bloodiest clashes of Israel’s 4-month-old offensive in the coastal territory.

At least 17 other Palestinians were wounded in the fighting in Beit Hanoun, hospital officials said, on the first day of the three-day Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of the Ramadan month of fasting.

Israeli TV reports said an army reconnaissance unit had hidden in a house in the northern Gaza town waiting for one of the Palestinian squads that have been launching homemade Kassam rockets into southern Israel almost daily. Members of the Israeli unit opened fire after armed militants detected them and moved toward the house, the reports said.

Atta Shimbari, local commander of the Popular Resistance Committees, was killed along with two armed members of his family and a noncombatant cousin, according to the militant group.

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Capt. Noa Meir, an Israeli army spokeswoman, said that Shimbari had been “deeply involved” in the group’s rocket attacks. But Abu Mujahid, a spokesman for the militants, called the incident “a clear assassination. Atta Shimbari was not in the process of carrying out a military operation.”

Palestinian witnesses said the Shimbaris came under fire on their way to a wake for a militant who had died in fighting last week. Some mourners left the wake to join in the clash, in which Palestinians lobbed mortar rounds and drew fire from Israeli tanks and a helicopter backing the reconnaissance team, the witnesses said.

Maj. Tal Lev-Ram, an Israeli officer in northern Gaza, said the army would continue to go after militants who launch rockets there. “We are moving the battle to their area,” he told the Associated Press.

The Popular Resistance Committees and other groups linked to the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Hamas movement provoked the Israeli offensive in late June by crossing into Israel, killing two soldiers and capturing one who has yet to be freed.

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More than 260 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, have been killed in the Gaza fighting.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose armed Fatah supporters are waging their own bloody power struggle with Hamas militants who now control the government, denounced the Israeli operation Monday as a “loathsome massacre” that blackened the Eid festivities.

The clash came as some Israeli officials called for deeper intervention in Gaza, a territory from which the army and Israeli settlers withdrew 14 months ago. The army expanded its current offensive last week to sweep the coastal strip’s southern border with Egypt and has since reported finding and closing 15 tunnels that the Israelis say were being used to smuggle arms and explosives into Gaza.

Two Palestinians were killed Monday in clashes with Israeli troops searching for more tunnels.

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On Sunday, three Israeli Cabinet ministers and a senior military commander called for a full-scale Israeli occupation of a 7.5-mile-wide zone along Gaza’s southern border.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government this week is expected to consider the proposal, along with other ways to stem the flow of advanced weapons like those the Islamic movement Hezbollah deployed from Lebanon this summer in its war with Israel.

“We must not permit Gaza to turn into a second Lebanon,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz told the Cabinet on Sunday. “We have no intention of capturing Gaza and staying there, but we are obligated to act against any terrorist element intending to harm Israel.”

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, leading Eid al-Fitr prayers at a stadium in Gaza City, denounced the cutoff of Western aid that has brought protests by unpaid Palestinian workers on this normally festive holiday. The Western boycott aims to pressure Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel, paving the way to talks.

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“It is not the first siege imposed on the Palestinian people, but it is the first under which we will make no concessions, we will not fall,” he told the crowd of about 20,000 people. “It is the first siege during which we say ‘no’ to America, ‘a thousand times no’ to concessions on Palestine.”

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boudreaux@latimes.com

Times special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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