Israeli troops killed six Palestinians, including a 17-year-old girl, in the bloodiest day of fighting this year across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian officials said Saturday.
The dead also included three militants traveling together in a car in the northern West Bank, and a man in Gaza killed in an Israeli airstrike in response to a Palestinian rocket attack.
Israeli officials defended the operations as the latest steps in their ongoing war against Palestinian militants. But Palestinian officials said the bloodshed only hurt efforts to expand a cease-fire in Gaza to the West Bank.
The fighting erupted early Saturday in the northern West Bank, an area known as a stronghold of militant groups.
The three militants were killed as they traveled in the northern town of Jenin. Palestinian officials said the men were ambushed by undercover troops, while the army said its troops returned fire after the militants shot at them.
Teenage girl reportedly shot
Late Saturday night, troops returned to the Jenin refugee camp, sparking a fierce firefight with local militants. Palestinian officials said the 17-year-old girl, identified as Bushra Wahash, was shot by Israeli gunfire as she peered out the window of her home. The army was investigating the report.
In a separate incident, a Palestinian policeman was killed when he climbed on the roof of his home during an Israeli arrest operation in the nearby village of Kafr Dan. The army said troops were repeatedly attacked by militants during the raid, and the soldiers fired on a man armed with a rifle standing on a roof.
Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the Israeli military activity. “This undermines our efforts to bring about a cessation of hostilities. As such, I believe this is very very bad.”
Israel and Palestinian militants have been observing a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip since last November. The truce has largely held, though Gaza militants have periodically fired rockets into Israel.
Rocket hits Israeli house
In talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Abbas has raised the possibility of expanding the cease-fire to the West Bank, where the army frequently conducts raids searching for wanted militants.
Late Saturday, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired three homemade rockets into southern Israel. One of the rockets scored a direct hit on a house in the Israeli border town of Sderot, causing no injuries, police said.
Minutes later, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at a Palestinian car near the rocket launch site, Palestinian officials said. A 37-year-old man in the car was killed and a second occupant was wounded, medical officials said.
The army confirmed it had attacked “the rocket launching cell that launched the rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot.”
Three Palestinian militant groups — Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades — claimed responsibility for the rocket attack. In a joint statement, they said the attack was to avenge the Palestinian deaths in the West Bank.
Palestinian security officials said the dead man was a civilian.
Israel says strikes were ‘surgical’
The fighting threatened the cease-fire, which has brought an overall drop in fighting. Israeli officials have warned they will not tolerate continued rocket fire.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the Israeli operations in the West Bank are necessary to protect Israelis from militant attacks. Numerous suicide bombings have originated in the northern West Bank.
Regev said Israel tries to be “as surgical as possible” to prevent widespread fighting.
“Israeli operations in the West Bank are designed to deal with a very real terror threat,” he said. “There is no doubt that these type of operations have been an extremely important ingredient in the dramatic reduction in the amount of suicide attacks in Israel.”
The death toll in Saturday’s fighting was the highest in the West Bank since four people were killed during an Israeli raid in a West Bank vegetable market on Jan. 4.
Israel sealed the West Bank and Gaza Strip from midnight Saturday for the upcoming Memorial Day and Independence Day, restricting the movement of Palestinians into Israel.
The order bars virtually all Palestinians from entering Israel, though exceptions will be made for humanitarian cases, health workers and religious workers. Thousands of Palestinians enter Israel each day to work, get medical treatment or visit relatives.
Israel routinely imposes closures ahead of major holidays. Memorial Day begins at sundown on Sunday, followed by Independence Day, which begins the following evening and ends late Tuesday. The army did not say when the closure would be lifted.