msnbc.com news services
updated 12/31/2003 10:35:31 AM ET 2003-12-31T15:35:31

An exploding bus tire triggered a brief panic in downtown Tel Aviv on Wednesday, a city on edge amid a flood of warnings about a possible New Year’s Eve “mega attack” by Palestinian militants against Israel.

After the initial reports of an explosion, emergency vehicles rushed to the scene, but police and fire officials then said it was a flase alarm and there had been no bomb.

Israeli police had been on high alert after receiving numerous warnings of an impending attack — possibly timed to coincide with New Year’s Eve.

The concern was heightened by fears of retribution following an Israeli helicopter attack Tuesday on a car carrying militants from the Hamas group in the Gaza Strip. The airstrike with two missiles wounded 11 people, but missed the apparent targets.

Israel’s military issued a statement saying the targets were “senior Hamas terrorists ... actively engaged in planning terror attacks.”

Hamas confirmed that its members were in the car, but it did not identify them.

The strike undermines an informal arrangement in which Israel avoided trying to kill Hamas militants as long as the group halts attacks on civilians inside Israel. Neither side had acknowledged that such an agreement existed.

Witnesses said the Fiat with the militants was traveling toward the Sheik Radwan neighborhood, a Hamas stronghold, when Apache helicopters opened fire.

“I saw a flame hit a small car and people trying to escape from the car,” said Raouf Musalam, a pharmacy owner who witnessed the attack. “Apaches were overhead for about two minutes while people rushed to help the wounded people.”

A crowd of hundreds of angry Palestinians gathered around the heavily damaged vehicle.

Dr. Jomma Saka of Gaza’s Shifa Hospital said 11 people were taken to the hospital. One was in critical condition, another suffered moderate injuries, and the rest were slightly wounded, he said.

During three years of fighting, Israel has frequently carried out airstrikes against militants, most recently last Thursday when Israeli helicopters struck killed three Islamic Jihad militants and two civilians in the Gaza Strip.

Nablus curfew
Earlier Tuesday, Israeli forces entered the West Bank city of Nablus, exchanging gunfire with Palestinian militants and imposing a curfew on the crowded ancient quarter, witnesses said. No casualties were reported from the gunfire.

Video: Concern over Israel’s wall Israeli forces had withdrawn from Nablus, a center of militant activity, on Monday after a two-week operation — focused around the Balata refugee camp — in which soldiers arrested dozens of suspected militants.

Troops also killed a Palestinian man near the city of Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian hospital officials said. They said the man was killed by random gunfire. The Israeli army said soldiers fired at a group of suspicious figures who were planting explosives near the settlement of Morag. After the incident, the military said soldiers found a tripwire and a roadside bomb in the area.

Continued violence has frozen efforts to implement the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, which also requires the Palestinians to dismantle groups responsible for three years of attacks against Israelis.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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