Israeli army incursions into the Gaza Strip killed at least 11 Palestinians on Wednesday, including eight gunmen and a 12-year-old boy, in the bloodiest fighting Gaza has seen since Hamas took control there two weeks ago.
Although Hamas gunmen took part in the fighting and were among the dead, the group appears to be scaling back its military activity against Israel as it struggles to consolidate its hold on Gaza.
The Israeli army operation, aimed at clearing militants from areas along Israel’s border, led to the highest death toll in a single day since May 20, threatening to drag Israel back into Gaza turmoil. Israel has been trying to remain on the sidelines of the infighting, but daily rocket barrages have edged the Israelis back into action.
Israeli forces pushed a short distance into northern and southern Gaza, according to Israeli security officials. Wednesday’s operation was no larger in scope than previous ones, the military said, attributing the large number of Palestinian casualties to stiff resistance.
One of the areas where troops invaded was the crowded, rundown Shajaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City, not far from the border fence.
The army said troops scoured areas near the border for gunmen, weapons and tunnels that could be used to attack Israeli positions, detaining several dozen Palestinians for questioning.
The Islamic militant Hamas, now the sole ruler in Gaza, has reduced its attacks on Israel since its lightning five-day rout of its Fatah rivals in mid-June, and the smaller Islamic Jihad group has taken the lead.
Despite the Israeli offensive, Islamic Jihad fired three rockets and Hamas militants aimed mortars at Israel, the groups said. No one was hurt.
Reacting to his Fatah forces’ embarrassing and painful loss of Gaza, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the Gaza commander of his Presidential Guard on Wednesday, aides said. Gen. Musbah Bahaisi was the second senior Palestinian security commander to be removed from office following the Hamas takeover.
Nearly all the dozens of rockets fired at Israel’s southern towns in recent weeks were launched by Islamic Jihad, which has also taken to shelling border crossings used to send humanitarian aid from Israel into Gaza.
The Hamas government appealed this week for a halt to attacks on the crossings, calling them Gaza’s “lifeline.” Kevin Kennedy, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator, said an attack Wednesday blocked a planned shipment of 5,000 tons of flour into Gaza.
Gaza has enough flour for only nine days, Kennedy said, and also faces shortages of sugar, milk and meat.
Civilians, militants killed alike
In the fighting Wednesday, Israeli fire struck a Gaza City house and killed four people — two Islamic Jihad militants, a 12-year-old boy and another civilian, medics and Islamic Jihad officials said. Four militants were killed in fighting with the Israelis in Shajaiyeh, Palestinians said.
In southern Gaza, three militants were killed in a clash with troops in the city of Khan Younis, including one whose body was found under rubble of a destroyed building, hospital officials said. A total of 47 people were wounded in clashes on Wednesday, hospital officials said.
The army said two soldiers were wounded when their tank was hit by a rocket.
Three other militants died Wednesday in Gaza — one of wounds sustained in an Israeli airstrike four days ago and a second while handling explosives. The third, a senior Islamic Jihad member, was killed in an explosion that Palestinians said was an airstrike. But Israel, which usually acknowledges airstrikes, denied involvement.
With Gaza now under Hamas control, Abbas is scrambling to ensure the West Bank remains in his hands. In a decree issued late Tuesday, Abbas ordered all armed groups to disarm immediately, including those linked to Fatah. He said illegal weapons would be confiscated.
'We shall continue to defend'
It was unclear whether Abbas — seen as a weak leader even before he was further undermined by the loss of Gaza — would be able to carry out a crackdown.
In addition to the official Palestinian security forces, the West Bank is home to thousands of gunmen from Hamas, the Fatah-allied Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and other factions.
Zakariye Zubeydi, a heavily armed Fatah leader in the Jenin refugee camp, said he supported Abbas’ efforts to disarm all militant groups — except for his.
“We shall continue to defend our people where they are with our weapons,” Zubeydi said.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said Abbas was surrendering to Israeli pressure. “All Palestinians hold fast to right of resistance,” he said.