Israeli undercover troops burst into a West Bank vegetable market Thursday, seizing four fugitives and exchanging heavy fire with Palestinians in the first major raid since the Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to try to ease tensions.
Four Palestinians, all civilians, were killed and 20 wounded in the fighting in Ramallah. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a harshly worded statement that Israel’s peace promises rang hollow in light of the raid and demanded $5 million in compensation for the damage to shops and cars in Ramallah.
In Gaza, six Palestinians, including a senior security officer, were killed and more than a dozen wounded in fighting between gunmen loyal to Hamas and those allied with Abbas’ Fatah movement.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak just after the Ramallah raid, apologized for any civilian casualties, but said the operation was intended to protect Israel from terrorist attacks.
“Things developed in a way that could not have been predicted in advance. If innocent people were hurt, this was not our intention,” he said.
The summit had been intended to push for new Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, but was overshadowed by the violence.
Mubarak rebukes Israel in Olmert's presence
Standing next to Olmert in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheik, Mubarak condemned the raid in Ramallah. “Israel’s security cannot be achieved through military force but by serious endeavors toward peace,” he said.
In Washington, a senior European Union diplomat said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to the Middle East this month to try to promote peacemaking.
“We will try to see how we can give a push to the peace process,” said Javier Solana, who met with Rice on Thursday.
The Israeli raid, which turned downtown Ramallah into a battlefield with dozens of cars smashed and vegetable carts overturned, further undercut Abbas at a time when he is locked in an increasingly violent power struggle with the Islamic militant Hamas.
Abbas said Israel’s assurances that it is striving for peace and security cannot be believed. “The continued aggression will only lead to the destruction of all efforts aimed at realizing peace,” his statement said.
In the northern Gaza Strip, a senior Palestinian security officer allied with Fatah was killed when Hamas militants laid siege to his house, engaging in a protracted gunbattle with his guards and then attacking it with grenades and a dozen rockets, Palestinian officials and witnesses said.
‘They are killers’
The officer, Col. Mohammed Ghayeb, was the chief of the Preventive Security Service in northern Gaza, and his death was expected to trigger revenge attacks.
Moments before his death, Ghayeb was on the telephone to Palestine TV appealing for help as his house in Beit Lahiya came under attack. “They are killers,” he said of the Hamas gunmen. “They are targeting the house, children are dying, they are bleeding. For God’s sake, send an ambulance, we want an ambulance, somebody move.”
The battle outside the house raged for much of the day and killed four of Ghayeb’s guards and a Hamas gunman. About three dozen people, including eight children, were wounded.
During the standoff outside Ghayeb’s home, dozens of women rushed into the streets in protest, chanting “Spare the bullets, shame, shame.”
One resident, Amina Abu Saher, told Al Quds radio that it was difficult for her to see Palestinians battle each other and she and the other women were determined to stop the internal fighting.
The factional fighting is a result of the political deadlock between Hamas, which controls the Cabinet, and Abbas, who was elected separately and wields considerable power. Talks on power-sharing between Hamas and Fatah have failed, and truce attempts have repeatedly collapsed.
Abbas met with leaders of political factions in Gaza on Thursday night. The smaller Islamic Jihad group, which has stayed out of the fighting, planned to propose more unity talks, this time between Abbas and Hamas’ supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal.
As the fighting worsened, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas cut short a tour of Arab nations and returned to Gaza.
At a news conference late Thursday, he called for an end to the violence. “There is no option before us but national unity,” he said.
In several places in the West Bank late Thursday, Fatah militants attacked Hamas offices and vehicles. One Hamas activist was wounded, Palestinian security officials said.
The Israeli army raid in Ramallah took the Palestinians by surprise.
It began when troops tried to arrest fugitives from the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent Fatah offshoot, in the vegetable market. A gunbattle erupted, and Israeli forces sent reinforcements, including armored personnel carriers, bulldozers, jeeps and an attack helicopter.
For about two hours, a heavy battle raged, sending residents scrambling for cover. Bursts of gunfire, loud booms and ambulance sirens could be heard across Ramallah. At one point, a helicopter fired large-caliber bullets.
The apparent target of the raid, Rabih Hamed, was seriously injured. A photographer for the local news agency Maan was critically wounded by a gunshot to the head.
Meanwhile, Israeli TV and Channel 2 television reported that Olmert had decided to remove his defense minister, Amir Peretz, citing sources in the prime minister’s office. Olmert’s office, however, denied the reports.
Peretz, who has a limited security background has come under fire, along with Olmert, because of the inconclusive results of last summer’s war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.