Israelis Try To Close Arms Tunnel

Israeli army tanks advance during a military operation in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip early Friday Oct. 10, 2003. Israeli forces, trying to demolish tunnels, allegedly used for smuggling Palestinian weapons, fought gunmen for hours Friday in the largest army raid in half a year in Rafah, a frequent battlefield. Three Palestinians were killed and 35 wounded, and an Israeli soldier was also hurt.
AP
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, including two boys 8 and 12, 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.

Meanwhile, Arafat attended Friday prayers at his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah and appeared to be recovering from what aides have said is a stomach flu. Arafat bowed and sat cross-legged, attentive and smiling, at the prayers. Arafat confidants have denied rumors that the leader is suffering from a serious illness.

Israel's raid of the Rafah refugee camp 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.

Israel says the tunnels are used to smuggle weapons into Gaza from Egypt. Sources told Haaretz newspaper the Palestinians are attempting to acquire missiles that could know out tanks and aircraft, including the helicopters often used in Gaza operations.

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.

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, witnesses said. 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 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, did not present 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.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat condemned the Gaza raid and said such violence is contributing to instability that is undermining efforts to get a new Palestinian government in place. About the internal Palestinian political wrangling, Erekat said, "We don't look good. At a time when the Palestinian people are suffering, the last thing we need is an internal crisis."

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.