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Israeli Tank Shells Kill Five Palestinians
Thu Oct 17,11:26 AM ET
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - Israeli tank shelling killed five Palestinians and wounded 45 in the Gaza Strip (news - web sites) on Thursday after gunmen had fired at army bulldozers, fueling tensions that are already close to boiling point.
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Witnesses said the dismembered bodies of two women, two youths and a 10-year-old girl were pulled from the rubble. Ambulance workers, ducking at the sound of gunfire, frantically wove through narrow alleys trying to reach the wounded.
The violence undermined U.S. demands for calm in the Middle East as it seeks Arab support for possible war on Iraq. It erupted after President Bush (news - web sites) put those demands to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news - web sites) at talks in Washington.
The bloodshed also set back any hopes raised by the first high-level meeting between Palestinian and Israeli officials for several weeks, although the talks in Jerusalem late Wednesday produced no breakthrough after two years of bloodshed.
Palestinian medics and witnesses said five people had been killed by Israeli shells fired at a cluster of houses in the Rafah refugee camp after Palestinian gunmen in the area shot at army bulldozers working near the border fence.
"We have five martyrs," said Ali Moussa, the director of Rafah hospital, using the term martyr to describe people killed in the Palestinian uprising for independence in Gaza and the West Bank.
"We have 45 people wounded. Most, if not all, are in critical condition," he said.
Witnesses said the dead and wounded alike were civilians.
Rafah, on Gaza's southern border with Egypt, has been a frequent flashpoint of violence in the uprising and is seen by Israel as a militant stronghold. Israel often uses bulldozers to destroy houses there, saying they are used as cover for gunmen.
"It must be noted that Rafah is a major center of hostile activity and arms smuggling, where terrorists operate from behind the cover of a civilian population," the army said.
"Palestinian terrorists fired an anti-tank rocket at an army unit that operated in the area, and troops returned fire, targeting the attackers," it said in a statement.
Israel has recently stepped up raids against Gaza militant organizations that are spearheading the uprising that began in September 2000 after the collapse of negotiations on terms for Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza.
The United States has criticized such raids when civilians have been killed and has demanded Israel ease the hardships of civilians living under curfews and blockades since it reoccupied West Bank cities after a wave of suicide bombings.
Tension has also risen in Gaza because of differences between President Yasser Arafat (news - web sites)'s Fatah (news - web sites) movement and the Islamic militant group Hamas over the handling of the uprising.
The violence in Rafah began hours after Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat met in Jerusalem, signaling a desire by both sides to at least maintain dialogue.
They discussed more Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank, following a pullout from the city of Bethlehem in August, and the release of tax revenues and other funds owed to the Palestinians but withheld by Israel since the uprising started.
The government is considering removing troops from Hebron.
"It was decided that expanded teams from the two sides will meet early next week," a Palestinian official said. Israel's Foreign Ministry called it a "preparatory meeting."
In Washington, a senior Israeli official told reporters after Sharon met Bush that Israel would not scale back military actions against militants and had not been asked to do so.
"There will be no retreat from our struggle against terror, not now, not in the future nor during any campaign that might or might not take place," the senior Israeli official said.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns will be taking stock of the situation during a two-week trip to the Middle East starting Friday after a meeting in Paris with other mediators.
Despite the flurry of meetings, there is little hope of a quick end to the bloodshed, in which at least 1,621 Palestinians and 604 Israelis have been killed in the past two years.
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