Eight Palestinians were killed Wednesday during some of the fiercest fighting in Gaza in months, complicating efforts by visiting American envoys to revive peace talks.
The gunbattles between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants turned one Gaza neighborhood into a war zone. As paramedics tended to the wounded, militants scrambled through the streets hoisting rocket launchers. A group of boys took cover behind a tin shack as gunfire crackled down a street.
At least five of the dead were armed men, including four from the Islamic Jihad group and one from Hamas; three were believed to be bystanders, hospital officials said. Confusion in identifying victims led hospital officials to report initially that nine had been killed.
The fighting erupted near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, in the heart of the teeming Gaza Strip.
The army said militants fired anti-tank missiles and set off a bomb, prompting the troops to fire back. Two Palestinians were killed in the incident, said Dr. Moawia Hassanain, a Palestinian hospital official.
Later, the army entered a Gaza City neighborhood near Netzarim, and a fierce battle flared between troops and gunmen. Six other Palestinians were killed, and several were wounded, Dr. Hassanain said. The military said no Israeli soldiers were wounded.
U.S. envoys meet with Palestinian leader
As two Israeli tanks rumbled slowly along one road, a rocket-propelled grenade whizzed just a few yards in front of the two vehicles, leaving a streak of white smoke. The tanks swiveled their barrels and fired machine guns.
The fighting came as U.S. envoys John Wolf and David Satterfield met with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia. The envoys, who were to meet Israeli officials as well, are trying to revive stalled peace negotiations.
Qureia said the American officials also demanded that he soon meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Qureia has balked at a summit with the Israeli leader until he gets assurances that it will produce results.
“We told them, ’OK, help in the preparation for the meeting,”’ Qureia told reporters. “We are not against it. If there is a successful meeting, a meeting with good indications for our people, we are ready.”
The meetings came a day after Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher met Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders in an effort to get militant groups to declare a halt to attacks on Israelis.
“There are serious efforts to revive peace efforts by the Americans and the Egyptians ... This (Gaza incursion) will undermine the efforts,” Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said.
Despite an overall lull in more than three years of Israeli-Palestinian violence, Gaza has been the scene of fierce fighting in recent months.
In October, nine Palestinians were killed in fighting in the Rafah refugee camp, a flashpoint near the Egypt-Gaza border. A few days later, 14 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli airstrike in the Nusseirat refugee camp. Last month, 11 Palestinians were killed in two separate Israeli army raids on the Rafah camp.
Islamic Jihad vowed to avenge Wednesday’s killings of its gunmen, among them two local military commanders.
The Hamas militant group said the “barbaric Zionist aggression is a greeting and a reception for the American delegation.”
Huge funeral procession
Thousands filled Gaza streets for funeral processions later Wednesday. Gunmen fired weapons into the air and women watched from balconies as bodies wrapped tightly in flags of Islamic groups were carried above the crowd on stretchers.
Sharon has pledged to impose a new boundary on the Palestinians if peace efforts do not bear fruit in the coming months. He has not yet released details of the separation plan but has said it would include dismantling Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
In the latest sign that Sharon is pushing forward with the separation plan, settler leaders said Wednesday that Sharon’s office has proposed dismantling seven isolated settlements that have been frequent targets of Palestinian attacks.
The list would reportedly include Netzarim, the heavily fortified enclave near the scene of Wednesday’s violence.
Although Sharon denied making any offer, settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein said the prime minister’s office chief had floated the proposal.
“Avigdor Yitzhaki met three of my colleagues, each one separately,” Wallerstein told Army Radio.
Details of settlement proposal
In exchange for settlers leaving, the government would guarantee that no other settlements would be uprooted until a peace treaty is reached with the Palestinians, Israeli media reported. Shaul Goldstein, another settler leader, said the proposal was rejected.
Sharon, for decades the main advocate of settlement expansion, said Tuesday that reports about the proposal were “wrong.”
“I have no intention of passing such a law that would tie the hands of the government,” he added.
If the evacuation occurs, it would be the first time Israel dismantled an officially sanctioned settlement in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
Sharon was scheduled to meet Wednesday with Giora Eiland, his National Security Council chief, to give him instructions for the designation of a “security line” that Israel will impose, the Haaretz daily reported.