Israel launches broad offensive in northern Gaza, killing Hamas commander

Tuesday, November 21st 2006, 6:31 am
By: News On 6

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ The Israeli military launched a three-pronged offensive in the northern Gaza Strip early Tuesday, killing a top Hamas commander in its latest operation against Palestinian rocket squads. An elderly Palestinian woman died in a gunbattle between troops and militants.

Militants persisted with the rocket fire, launching five homemade projectiles, including three that landed in southern Israel. One critically wounded a man in the town of Sderot, a frequent target, striking the ground a half-mile from a convoy carrying the United Nations' top human rights official, who was touring the town.

The military confirmed operations in northern Gaza, but provided few details.

The operation on Tuesday began at about 2 a.m. as an arrest raid in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, then fanned out to the outskirts of Jebaliya and Beit Lahiya, about 4 miles away.

Ground troops backed by helicopters, tanks and snipers surrounded the Zeitoun home of Ayman Hassanin, 26, a local leader in the military wing of the ruling Hamas group, witnesses said.

Gunmen streamed to the area as troops called on loudspeakers for Hassanin and his brother, Ibrahim, to surrender, said the militants' mother, who identified herself only as Umm Mahmoud. A fierce gunbattle erupted, and Ayman Hassanin, 26, was killed, Hamas said.

A 70-year-old woman was also killed in the battle, Palestinian medical officials said.

The army confirmed surrounding Hassanin's home to arrest him, saying troops opened fire only after militants fired guns and mortars at the soldiers first.

Troops entered the town of Jebaliya after dawn. Bulldozers plowed over farms, ripping up irrigation systems and destroying greenhouses and fields. A main electricity transformer, which provides about 60 percent of the power to the Zeitoun neighborhood, was also destroyed.

Four people, including at least one Hamas gunman, was wounded when a tank shell hit a group of fighters, witnesses said.

Israeli bulldozers demolished a factory between Jebaliya and Beit Lahiya in an area where rockets were launched Tuesday morning. Troops also razed land on the outskirts of Beit Lahiya and took up positions on high ground.

By late morning, the troops had left Zeitoun.

Israel has intensified its military offensive against rocket-launchers in Gaza in recent weeks, even though rocket attacks have only increased since a weeklong incursion in the northern town of Beit Hanoun this month.

The operation in Gaza City was the first in months in the coastal strip's largest town. It came hours after two Hamas militants were killed in an Israeli air strike after nightfall Monday.

Thousands of Hamas supporters took part in the militants' funeral procession on Tuesday. Gunmen fired rifles in the air, chanting, ``Revenge, revenge!'' as a recorded speech of a Hamas leader assassinated by Israel was broadcast in the background.

A spokesman for Hamas' military wing, Abu Obeidah, told a news conference that the armed resistance would continue so long as Israeli ``aggression'' did. He advised Israel to ``empty Sderot of its residents'' until the ``aggression'' stops and said, without elaborating, that the militants' homemade rockets had become more accurate and longer-range.

Louise Arbour, the U.N. commissioner for human rights, got an angry reception from a few Sderot residents on Tuesday. Workers at a chicken-slaughtering plant threw stones at her vehicle and shouted curses when she came to see the result of Palestinian rocket fire firsthand.

The man who was critically wounded by the rocket Tuesday was a plant worker. Last week, rocket fire killed a woman in Sderot.

Israel ``has a responsibility to defend its citizens, but has to do so only by legal means,'' said Arbour, who came as the guest of Sderot's mayor, and visited a school and met with town residents. ``It has to do so in line with international law, including international humanitarian law, but it has a primary responsibility to protect people who are under its authorities.''

For the first time, Hamas broadcast footage from the battlefield on Tuesday. Palestinian TV showed Israeli tanks firing, land mines detonating near the tanks, and a rocket launching.

The violence in Gaza has been accompanied in recent months by increasing poverty brought on by international sanctions meant to force the Hamas-led government to recognize Israel and disarm.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the separately elected head of the moderate Fatah Party, had hoped to persuade Western countries to lift the boycott by establishing a government of experts to replace the Hamas-led body.

On Monday Fatah officials suddenly announced that months of negotiations had broken down, but it wasn't clear whether the suspension was the sign of a real crisis or simply a negotiating tactic by a weakened Fatah.

On Tuesday, the Saudi daily Okaz reported on its front page that Abbas, who was visiting Saudi Arabia, would resign if the U.S. refused to deal with the future Palestinian government.