rafah, Gaza Strip – Israeli forces trying to demolish Palestinian weapons-smuggling tunnels fought gunmen for hours Friday in the largest army raid in half a year in this refugee camp, a frequent battleﬁeld. Six Palestinians were killed and 50 wounded, and an Israeli soldier was also hurt.
In the West Bank, the survival of Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia’s proposed Cabinet was in question after the legislature put off a vote of approval amid intense political wrangling Thursday. An exasperated Qureia told Yasser Arafat he no longer wants the job, but stopped short of formally resigning.
Also Thursday, a Palestinian suicide bomber struck an Israeli liaison ofﬁce, injuring two soldiers and a Palestinian. The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, an armed group linked to Arafat’s Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Israel’s raid of the Rafah refugee camp—code-named “Operation Enchanted Day”—began around midnight Thursday and could last several days, military sources said. It was part of stepped-up military activity in response to last weekend’s suicide bombing that killed 20 Israelis in a restaurant in the port city of Haifa.
Earlier this week, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered two more battalions into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and decided to call up four battalions of reserve soldiers, or about 1,000 troops, after the Sukkot holiday which ends in a week.
Troops have been enforcing a strict travel ban, conﬁning Palestinians in the West Bank to their communities and blocking main roads in the Gaza Strip.
The Rafah raid was aimed at uncovering weapons-smuggling tunnels. Armored vehicles and attack helicopters swept into the camp on Gaza’s border with Egypt, joined by special forces, including engineering units with dogs trained to ﬁnd tunnels.
Gun battles erupted between soldiers and Palestinian gunmen and continued after daybreak Friday.
Six Palestinians were killed and 50 people wounded by Israeli ﬁre, Palestinians said. An 8-year-old boy shot in the stomach died of his wounds while on a respirator.
Most of the casualties were caused when a helicopter ﬁred a missile at a crowd. The military said the missile targeted a group of gunmen. One of the dead was decapitated.
An Israeli soldier was also lightly wounded in the ﬁghting.
Dr. Ali Mousa, director of Rafah’s small Najar Hospital, said women and children were among the wounded. Two of the dead were identiﬁed as members of militant groups, and at least two others were civilians, Mousa said.
Mousa said his hospital was overwhelmed by the large numbers of casualties. He said many of the wounded required surgery, but that he has only one operating room and did not have enough medicine and other supplies.
Normally, serious cases are sent to hospitals in other towns, but those patients could not be transferred because of the Israeli travel restrictions, he said.
The Israeli army bulldozed three houses it said gunmen were ﬁring from near the border. Thunderous explosions could be heard. The military said Palestinians hurled hand grenades and ﬁred anti-tank missiles at the forces.
The army positioned snipers on rooftops, witnesses said, and ﬁred a tank shell at an electricity transformer, plunging the camp into darkness.
Because of the heavy ﬁghting, the military was not able to begin searching for smuggling tunnels until after daybreak and had not yet found any, the army said.
Israeli military ofﬁcials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel had intelligence warnings that Palestinians were planning to use the tunnels to smuggle in anti-aircraft missiles _ weapons that could have a strategic impact on the three-year conﬂict. They said Palestinians were trying to get shoulder-held Stinger missiles that could shoot down attack helicopters Israel often uses in Gaza, and could also threaten Israeli warplanes or civilian aircraft ﬂying close to the coastal strip.
Also, they said, the Palestinians were trying to smuggle Katyusha rockets, which would have the range to hit Israeli cities near Gaza. During the conﬂict, the Palestinians have been aiming homemade mortars and rockets at Israeli towns and settlements.
The ofﬁcials said, however, they had no hard evidence to back up the claims. They said Egypt was not taking steps to stop the smuggling.
So far this year, the military said it has destroyed 33 smuggling tunnels in the area. The tunnels have been used to bring in munitions and riﬂes, as well as drugs.
Aides said Arafat received reports about the Rafah incursion and went to bed at 2:30 a.m. Friday (0030 GMT). They denied rumors that he was seriously ill.
On Thursday, in a heated closed-door meeting at Arafat’s headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Qureia suggested he no longer wanted to be prime minister, just four days after taking ofﬁce, ofﬁcials said.
Qureia’s success is key to efforts to salvage the stalled U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, which outlines a path to ending three years of conﬂict and a Palestinian state by 2005. Thursday’s public embarrassment seemed to bode ill for his chances of survival.
As dozens of Palestinian legislators and hundreds of ofﬁcials waited for nearly an hour and a half for the expected vote on Qureia’s Cabinet, backdoor wrangling continued among members of Arafat’s Fatah faction about the size and the makeup of the government.
Unable to agree on whether to conﬁrm the eight-person emergency Cabinet appointed by Arafat on Sunday, the ofﬁcials abruptly canceled the vote.
The vote was tentatively rescheduled for Saturday. Until then, the Cabinet remains a temporary one that ofﬁcials say can rule for a month only.
During the meeting with Arafat and the Fatah leadership, an exasperated Qureia told the Palestinian leader, “Just relieve me of this job,” according to ofﬁcials who were present. That sparked speculation he might have resigned, which Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh denied.
“There are serious differences, but it did not reach the point of resignation,” Abu Rdeneh told reporters outside Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters.
Violence continued Thursday in the West Bank when, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at an Israeli army base, killing himself and injuring two Israeli soldiers and a Palestinian.