Tuesday, October 08, 2002

Israelis, in New Strategy, Raid Gaza Town, Killing 13
In what it called a new strategy to place the Islamist group Hamas on the defensive, the Israeli Army sent dozens of tanks backed by helicopter gunships into this densely packed Gaza town early today, killing at least 13 people.

Most of the dead were victims of a single missile fired into a crowded dirt road. The raid drew an unusual rebuke from the Bush administration, which said Israel was endangering civilians.

The missile gashed the median strip of Gamal Abdel Nasser street here and shattered windows three stories above it. Hours later, patches of the gold-colored sand were still crimson mud.

Salaam Abu Salaam, 12, rushed up to a stranger with a jagged piece of shrapnel. Asked why Israel had conducted the raid, he said, "They hate us."

In Washington, Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said: "We're deeply troubled by the reports of Israeli actions in Gaza over the weekend that resulted in deaths and wounding of many Palestinian civilians. While the precise details still remain uncertain, Israeli operations were undertaken in crowded civilian areas and involved firing on a medical facility."

The apparent Israeli decision to widen its military offensive from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip seems certain to inflame anger across the Arab world.

Unlike other recent Israeli attacks, this one did not have the specific aim of killing wanted men or destroying weapons factories. Calling Khan Yunis a Hamas stronghold, the army said the mission was part of a new strategy of putting pressure on Hamas, which has frequently launched crude rockets from the Gaza Strip.

Although Israel has tracked down and killed Hamas leaders, it has generally responded to Hamas bombings of Israeli civilians with punitive attacks on Yasir Arafat's governing Palestinian Authority.

More than 100 people were injured in the raid, with some victims in critical condition with shrapnel wounds, Palestinian hospital officials said. The dead included a 14-year-old boy and a woman in her 40's, the officials said.

Israeli troops also fired machine guns and semiautomatic weapons toward Nasser Hospital here, where most of the wounded were taken, hitting its courtyard. The army said its soldiers had fired in response to mortar shelling. At least three people were injured, and one was reported to have been killed.

Palestinian officials said all of the dead were civilians. The Israeli Army said most of them were armed men. Some Israeli officials expressed consternation over the action, saying they feared that it could embarrass President Bush on the day of his speech on Iraq.

The aim of the Israeli government was to sabotage truce talks among Palestinians, the Palestinian officials said, by provoking Hamas, which promised bloody retaliation.

The Bush administration called on Israel to investigate the deaths and said it expected "immediate steps" to prevent the recurrence of such incidents.

Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, said through a spokesman that firing into a crowd of civilians could have "no legal or moral justification." He said the attack "could lead to a further escalation while increasing the sense of vulnerability and insecurity among both the Palestinians and Israelis."