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|Israel Tanks Enter Palestinian Camp|
|04/11/01 at 13:19:47|
Wednesday April 11 9:35 AM ET
Israel Tanks Enter Palestinian Camp
By IBRAHIM BARZAK, Associated Press Writer
KHAN YUNIS REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip (news - web sites) (AP) - In a first foray into Palestinian territory, Israeli tanks and bulldozers rumbled into this refugee camp early Wednesday, razing or heavily damaging 30 homes and triggering an exchange of fire that killed two Palestinians and wounded more than two dozen.
The assault - retaliation for Palestinian mortar fire on Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip - marked the first time since the outbreak of fighting in the fall that Israeli ground troops entered Palestinian-controlled territory.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel had no interest in reoccupying Palestinian territory.
Palestinian officials called for international intervention and said Israel crossed a red line by re-entering areas under full Palestinian control. Israel troops had withdrawn from two-thirds of Gaza in 1994, as part of interim peace agreements.
The violence threatened U.S. efforts to convene a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian security commanders, slated for later Wednesday.
Residents of the Khan Yunis refugee camp said the Israeli attack began at about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, when several tanks, armored personnel carriers and bulldozers advanced toward the camp as helicopter gunships hovered above. Shells were fired at the camp, drawing Palestinian return fire, witnesses said. The army said Palestinians also fired more mortars at nearby Jewish settlements.
``We started running from our homes ... while they were firing toward us and bulldozers started destroying our homes without giving us a warning, without giving us a chance to take out some clothes and furniture,'' said camp resident Imad Abu Namous, 42, a father of seven who lost his home in the assault.
By daybreak, hundreds of camp residents were sifting through the rubble. One woman carried a metal tray piled with pots and pans on her head, while a group of men pulled pillows and blankets from the rubble. One man tried to retrieve a ceiling fan still linked by an electric wire to the remains of the ceiling.
Standing in the ruins of his bedroom, a 9-year-old boy picked up bits of red plastic, the remains of a toy fire engine his father had bought him after returning from the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, last month. ``I lost my only toy car. I hate them (the Israelis),'' said the boy, Osama Hassouneh.
The mayor of Khan Yunis, Osama Fara, said 15 homes were razed completely and another 15 heavily damaged, leaving hundreds of people homeless.
Palestinian doctors said a policeman and a civilian died from shrapnel injuries and 27 people were wounded. Among those hurt were three journalists, including Mohammed Shanaa, a 27-year-old TV soundman who suffered serious back injuries.
Since fighting broke out in the fall, 467 people have been killed, including 384 Palestinians, 64 Israeli Jews and 19 others. Two Palestinians, a 15-year-old and a 19-year-old who were critically wounded by Israeli fire in separate incidents last week, died Wednesday from their wounds.
The Israeli army said it destroyed 11 buildings and insisted they were vacant.
Ben-Eliezer, the Israeli defense minister, said troops attacked an area from which mortar shells were repeatedly fired at Jewish settlements.
``The order was ... to go in and destroy the same posts from which our communities were shelled. These are points we don't want the Palestinians to return to,'' Ben-Eliezer told Israel radio. ``This is a clear act of defense.''
Israel has said Palestinians have fired more than 50 mortar shells at Gaza settlements in recent days.
Nabil Aburdeneh, a senior adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (news - web sites), denied that mortar shells were fired from the homes razed Wednesday. He called for immediate U.S. intervention.
Aburdeneh said the Palestinians had not yet decided whether to participate in the planned U.S.-hosted security talks. But a Palestinian security chief in the West Bank, Tawfiq Tirawi, said the meeting would be held later Wednesday.
Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news - web sites), said Israel would participate in talks if they are held. Gissin said any talks would be about ``ending the violence'' and they would not include political issues.
He refused to address an idea raised by Ahmed Qureia, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, who proposed that ``restoring calm'' might come as part of a package in which Israel also carried out outstanding obligations from past agreements, including another land handover in the West Bank.
Israeli sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had held talks with Qureia in recent days.
The efforts to reestablish dialogue came amid a marked escalation on the ground in recent weeks, with Israel targeting Palestinian police headquarters and outposts with helicopter and tank fire and rockets in response to Palestinian mortar barrages at Israeli settlements in Gaza and just outside the territory.
Sharon has said he had a comprehensive plan to stop the violence and pledged that ``security would be restored.''
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