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Israeli night raids claim 5 militants

Pilots who refused to conduct airstrikes face major backlash

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JERUSALEM — Israeli troops staged nighttime raids on Thursday in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that left five Palestinian militants and one soldier dead in the fiercest day of fighting in more than two weeks.

At the same time, the Israeli government, along with much of the news media and many ordinary Israelis, criticized 27 Air Force reserve pilots who said they would refuse to carry out bombing missions in Palestinian areas. The airstrikes are aimed at Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but civilians are sometimes among the casualties.

While the Middle East peace talks are frozen, Israeli forces are carrying out almost nightly ground raids aimed at the militants. Palestinians also continue to fire regularly at Israeli targets, though most of these clashes have been on a small scale in recent days.

But in a predawn charge on Thursday, Israeli troops and armored vehicles faced fierce resistance when they rumbled into the Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip searching for wanted Palestinians.

In sustained battles, Israeli troops killed two Palestinians, one from Hamas and another from Islamic Jihad, while eight Palestinians were wounded, according to Palestinian hospital officials. One Israeli soldier was killed and seven more were wounded, the military said.

Israeli forces staged a similar raid in the West Bank city of Hebron, surrounding a house and exchanging fire with wanted Palestinians inside. Two members of Islamic Jihad were killed and another was seriously wounded, a military source said.

In the southern Gaza Strip, Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian man who appeared to be planting a bomb outside the Jewish settlement of Morag, an Israeli military source said. After daybreak, the army said it confirmed that the dead man was carrying a pipe bomb.

The six deaths on Thursday added up to the highest toll since Palestinian suicide bombers killed 15 Israelis in two separate attacks on Sept. 9.

Meanwhile, the protest begun Wednesday by the air force reserve pilots dominated Israeli newspapers, radio talk shows and television news broadcasts on Thursday. Most Israelis seemed to disapprove of the pilots' stance.

The prime minister, Ariel Sharon, called it a "severe, serious incident, and it must be dealt with quickly."

Most of the 27 pilots have not flown in years and are effectively retired. Nine who remain on active duty are grounded for now and could face additional punishment, the air force said.

Zeev Rotem, a retired aviator speaking in support of the pilots, said the airmen decided to go public because so many of the recent missions had been in crowded urban areas.