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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

April 03, 2003

Israel-Palestinians

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Israeli troops looking for weapons-smuggling tunnels raided a Gaza refugee camp early Thursday, killing four armed Palestinians in exchanges of fire and demolishing five houses.

In the West Bank, two Palestinians, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed by army fire.

In the army raid, soldiers backed by 35 tanks, four attack helicopters and more than a dozen bulldozers entered the Rafah camp near the Egyptian border. A firefight erupted. Four Palestinian gunmen were killed, including one hit by fire from an Apache helicopter, and seven were wounded.

The army said the raid was meant to uncover tunnels used for smuggling weapons from Egypt, and that four houses were razed. Palestinians put the number of demolished homes at five.

No tunnels were discovered but four soldiers were wounded when a bomb went off under a tank. The militant Islamic group Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks, claimed responsibility for the tank attack, saying it was a "gift to the Iraqi people."

The Rafah camp has been a flashpoint of fighting in the past 30 months, with troops destroying dozens of home allegedly used for covering tunnels or as firing positions. The army has demolished nearly 700 houses in refugee camps in the West Bank and the Gaza since September 2000, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The demolitions have rendered more than 5,000 Palestinians homeless, the Red Cross said.

In the West Bank town of Qalqiliya, meanwhile, Israeli troops searching for Palestinian militants late Wednesday night shot and killed a 14-year-old Palestinian when he opened his door to look at troops outside, witnesses said. The army said the youth tried to run away from troops, and was shot after he ignored calls to stop.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli troops shot and killed a local Hamas leader early Thursday morning, the army said.

Khaled Rayyan, 28, was hiding in a relative's house with his wife and child when soldiers broke down the door, said his wife, Salam. Rayyan was killed when he tried to attack the troops with a pistol, she said.

Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, said he condemned the killings, particularly of the teenager. "I ... urge the international community not to allow Israel to continue exploiting the war with Iraq to achieve its end goal," Erekat said.

Palestinians have expressed concern that Israel would step up military strikes while the world's attention focuses on Iraq. However, there has been no sign of a significant increase in raids in the past two weeks.

In the West Bank town of Tulkarem and an adjacent refugee camp, nearly 1,000 men and teenage boys who had been questioned on Wednesday during an Israeli military sweep were being kept from returning to their homes on Thursday. The army said they were being kept out so soldiers could search homes and question other residents.

As many Palestinians waited to return to their homes, Israeli forces demolished the Tulkarem home of a Palestinian suicide bomber who blew himself up in the coastal city of Netanya two years ago. Israel routinely demolishes the homes of families of suicide bombers as a deterrent. Palestinians say it is collective punishment.

Also Thursday, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister-designate, met with political leaders in the Gaza Strip to discuss the formation of his new Cabinet, expected later this month.