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Israel kills 33 Palestinians in Gaza raid PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 02 March 2008

Agency

Israel killed 33 Palestinians on Saturday in its deadliest and deepest incursion into the Gaza Strip since pulling out in 2005, stoking fears of a broader conflict that could derail renewed US-backed peace talks.

At least 68 Palestinians have been killed in four days of intense Israeli air strikes and raids in the tiny Hamas-controlled territory, home to 1.5 million people, straddling Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean.

Israel said it was responding to cross-border rockets which killed an Israeli man in the border town of Sderot on Wednesday and wounded others in the major southern city of Ashkelon. Palestinian officials said the one-day death toll in Gaza on Saturday was the highest since 2002.

Of the 33 Palestinians killed, 16 were civilians and the rest were militants, according to hospital staff and the Islamist Hamas movement, which seized Gaza last June after routing the more secular Fatah forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian officials said Israeli forces advanced towards the towns of Beit Hanoun and Jabalya, the largest and furthest incursion into Gaza since 2005, when Israel pulled out its settlers and troops from the territory after 38 years.

The United States on Friday urged Israel to "consider the consequences" of any action ahead of next week's scheduled visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. More bloodshed could derail Washington's hopes of a deal on Palestinian statehood before President George W. Bush leaves office next January.

Abbas, who remains hostile to Hamas, called the Israeli actions "unbelievable" and said what is happening "is more than a holocaust", a reference to comments made on Friday by Deputy Israeli Defence Minister Matan Vilnai. Vilnai had warned Gazans they risked a "shoah" if rocket fire did not end.

An aide said Vilnai meant "disaster" rather than "holocaust", the word's more common meaning. Israeli government spokesman David Baker accused Hamas of "blatantly and shamefully using residents as human shields in order to target Israeli civilians".

CASUALTIES

One of the dead civilians was a mother who was preparing breakfast for her children when she was hit by gunfire, relatives and medical workers said.

A girl and her brother were also among the dead. One missile slammed into a crowd of Palestinians, killing four civilians, medical staff and Hamas said. The army said it fired on militants.

Witnesses said fighting erupted after Israel soldiers, backed by helicopter gunships, entered northern Gaza overnight and were confronted by Palestinian gunmen. The Israeli army said five soldiers had been lightly or moderately wounded in the fighting.

A Palestinian eyewitness said he saw at least one Israeli soldier, whose body had been sliced in half, being pulled from a tank. An army spokeswoman said about 33 rockets were fired into Israel on Saturday, including three Soviet-designed Grad missiles, which are more powerful and accurate than improvised Qassams produced locally.

Three Israelis were lightly injured by rockets that reached deep into Ashkelon, a city of some 120,000 people. Israeli leaders said they may have no choice but to launch a broader offensive in the Gaza Strip if Palestinian militants do not stop rocket attacks on the Jewish state.

"As long as events escalate, the chances that we will use greater force increases," Vilnai told Israel Radio. In a defiant message to Israel, Hamas's armed wing said: "You will never stop the rockets."

The high death toll could increase pressure on Abbas to suspend peace talks with Israel. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said a major offensive would "bury" peace efforts.

Though rocket fire has long disrupted life in southern Israeli towns, the killing of the Israeli on Wednesday -- the first death of its kind since May -- has put pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to increase military action.

Hamas has said the rocket attacks were a response to Israeli raids into Gaza and the West Bank.

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