Clashes in Gaza Strip Leave At Least Two Dozen Dead

Witnesses said 11 Palestinians, including four militants, were killed in helicopter missile strikes in the Rafah refugee camp, near the area where militants blew up a troop carrier Wednesday, according to Reuters. Five Israeli soldiers died in the attack.

Israeli troops later shot dead a 19-year-old Palestinian during a two-day incursion into Gaza to recover the remains of six soldiers who were killed in an ambush Tuesday. The soldiers’ armored vehicle rolled over a landmine during a raid in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood.

Militants recovered the soldiers’ body parts, initially saying they would only return them in exchange for the release Palestinian prisoners. Several of the body parts were returned after the Israeli troops pulled out the Gaza neighborhood as part of an agreement worked out with Palestinian and Egyptian officials. Israel said it had not made any deal to pull out in exchange for the body parts.

The Palestinian ambushes dealt the Israeli army its heaviest blow since April 2002 when 13 soldiers were killed in the West Bank.

A total of 16 Palestinians, including militants and bystanders, were killed and 185 wounded in the two-day siege in Gaza City, according to Palestinian medics, Reuters reported.

During the incursion, the Israeli army destroyed four multistory buildings and dozens of homes and ripped up the main road with armored vehicles, according to the Associated Press.

“They (the Israelis) have moved their crimes from Zeitoun in Gaza City to Rafah,” Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat told reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. “I call on the whole world to condemn these Israeli criminal acts.”

Israel’s army chief, Gen. Moshe Yaalon, defended the use of force, saying, “We will act as long as there is terror in the Gaza Strip … and weapons that can threaten (Israeli) communities in the area,” he told reporters.

He said the soldiers were destroying houses and workshops where they found mortars and materials to make Qassam rockets.

Palestinians said much of the damage was indiscriminate.

The clashes have reportedly intensified debate over Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw settlements from Gaza. His Likud Party rejected the plan May 2 for fear that Palestinian militants would seize on the pullout as a victory.

Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert told Israel Radio that Sharon is working on a plan “to disengage from Gaza” while addressing Likud concerns, reported the AP.