Israeli forces thrust deeper into densely populated north Gaza on Wednesday to root out elusive Palestinian militant rocket squads, triggering battles on the edge of a major refugee camp, witnesses said. At least four Palestinians were wounded in fighting just outside Jabalya camp, an Islamic militant bastion. An Israeli helicopter fired a missile at Hamas militants trying to plant a bomb in the path of soldiers, but no casualties were reported.
Violence has increased in Gaza since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unveiled a plan to evacuate settlers in 2005, with militants keen to prove they chased their foe off occupied land and Israel determined to prevent that by crushing them first.
Israeli tanks and infantry stormed into the Beit Hanoun area a month ago and have razed farmland used by Hamas as cover for firing Qassam rockets over the fenced border into nearby Israel.
But the mobile rocket teams have shifted positions and continued to launch Qassams almost daily into the Israeli town of Sderot. The rockets — small, crudely built and highly inaccurate — have caused some damage but few casualties.
On Tuesday night and early Wednesday, armored Israeli forces dug in along the outskirts of Jabalya in hopes of driving the rocket squads out of range of Sderot. In the southern Gaza refugee camp of Rafah, Palestinian witnesses and medics said a 20-year-old man was killed by Israeli gunfire while returning to his home. The army said there were exchanges of fire with militants in the area at the time.
Israel has also kept a tight military grip on the West Bank where Sharon envisages a much more limited pullout, leaving major settlement areas under Israeli control, under his plan to “disengage” from some territories occupied in a 1967 war.
In the West Bank city of Nablus on Wednesday, Israeli troops firing toward a crowd of Palestinian stone-throwers killed a 29-year old bystander, witnesses and medics said.
Citing safety fears, the main United Nations aid agency in Gaza said it was evacuating another 19 of its foreign staff in addition to 20 withdrawn last month, leaving only nine in place. “The main reason is the expanding Israeli operation in northern Gaza,” said UNRWA spokesman Johan Eriksson.