Israel Battles Rocket Attacks in Gaza

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Palestinian militants in the northern Gaza Strip managed to fire more crude rockets at an Israeli border town today, even as Israeli troops and armor inundated a large swath of the seaside territory in a bid to halt such attacks.

The death toll in the six-day Israeli incursion, code-named Days of Reckoning, has exceeded 70, with the number of wounded ranging above 200, according to Palestinian hospital officials and Israeli human rights group. At least one-third of the dead are believed to be noncombatants.

The humanitarian situation was reported to be worsening in the Jabaliya refugee camp, the focal point of the confrontation between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants. The squalid, sprawling site — a tangle of grit-choked alleyways and concrete-slab slum buildings — is home to more than 100,000 Palestinians.

With fighting raging all around them, many of those living in the camp are trapped in their homes and are running short of food, water and medicine, medical officials said. Israel said it had opened a route for humanitarian supplies, but Jabaliya residents said little or no aid was arriving in the worst-off pockets.

Israeli military officials have described the operation — the largest of its kind in the seaside strip during the 4-year-old conflict — as open-ended.

“This fighting will continue, and this operation will continue,” said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who visited the Israeli desert town of Sderot, where the deaths of two small children in a rocket attack last week triggered the massive strike.

“Terror is terror, and we should fight it with an iron fist, and this is what we are doing,” Mofaz added.

He and other Israeli officials, though, acknowledged that even the presence of about 200 Israeli armored vehicles and more than 2,000 troops in a six-mile-deep zone carved out by the army in northern Gaza had been unable to prevent Palestinian militants from firing Kassam rockets, crude projectiles that are essentially flying pipe bombs.

One of two rockets fired from Gaza on Monday hit a college campus on the outskirts of Sderot, slightly injuring one man.

The rocket attacks usually are mounted by small cells of two or three Hamas fighters who then disappear into Jabaliya’s labyrinth of narrow streets before Israeli forces can pinpoint the source of fire.

Israel has embarked on exhaustive aerial surveillance of the Kassam launch zone with pilotless drones, helicopters and warplanes. In the camp, makeshift defenses sprang up against the airborne watchers: rugs and blankets were draped over alleyways, and piles of tires sent black smoke billowing into the salty air.

The Israeli army says seven rocket crews have been killed or incapacitated during the current operation.

Among at least seven dead in today’s clashes were a 14-year-old Palestinian girl killed inside her home. Four men killed in a predawn Israeli artillery strike were identified as fighters, and later a young man was shot dead in the street near his home.

Palestinians also reported a 4-year-old boy killed by a stray bullet in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, but the Israeli army said it knew of no shooting in the area.

Israel, already urged by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to halt the incursion, was braced for more international criticism as the Security Council prepared to meet in emergency session. Annan also urged the Palestinians to halt the rocket attacks.

Israel so far has brushed aside calls for restraint. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking to Israeli soldiers, said they should consider themselves to be “in the midst of a defensive battle.”

The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem put the death toll at 75 as of Monday, including 19 people under the age of 17. It said about 55 homes had been demolished and 50,000 Palestinians in the combat zone lacked electricity and sufficient water.

“We want water. We have only three bottles left,” 33-year-old camp resident Othman Abed Rabbo told the Reuters news agency. “I tried yesterday to send my wife, but a tank fired at her.”

In increasingly blunt fashion, Israeli officials put Palestinian civilians on notice that they would be the ones to suffer if the militants continued to use Gaza neighborhoods as a base of operation.

“I believe the time has come for the Palestinian population to think where it is headed,” Col. Eyal Eisenberg, commander of the Givati Brigade, told Israel Radio. “The Palestinian side is being asked to pay a price, and we’ll collect this fee until we see some pragmatism developing among them.”

But even if Palestinian civilians wish to do so, defying the militants is a dangerous affair. In a widely reported incident in July, a teenage boy was slain in northern Gaza when his family tried to stop a militant cell from firing rockets from their property. Israel has razed hundreds of fields and orchards from which rockets were fired, whether the landowners were thought to have played any role.

Special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in the Jabaliya refugee camp contributed to this report.