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Fighting in Gaza leaves 31 dead

Israelis move tanks deep into a crowded refugee camp

NISANIT, Gaza Strip — At least 28 Palestinians and three Israelis were killed on Thursday when Israeli troops pushed into a densely packed refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip and battled militants darting among the narrow alleys. It was the deadliest day in more than two years.

The Israelis fired from tanks and armored personnel carriers while they moved deep into the Jabaliya refugee camp, where more than 100,000 Palestinians live, just north of Gaza City. Masked Palestinians fired automatic rifles and anti-tank missiles and planted explosives along the sandy streets.

The Israelis rolled into northern Gaza on Tuesday night after the latest surge in Palestinian rocket fire. The heavy fighting on Thursday, combined with warnings from Israeli officials, pointed to the possibility of a large-scale military offensive in Gaza directed at the Palestinian factions responsible for almost daily attacks.

Throughout four years of fighting, the Israeli military has been reluctant to enter the congested cities and refugee camps in Gaza, where it is difficult for its armored vehicles to operate. Even limited Israeli ground incursions in the strip have resulted in large numbers of casualties among Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.

But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he is determined to proceed with his plan to withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza unilaterally, and the persistent fighting is complicating his efforts.

Army Radio reported that Sharon had approved a major offensive that would involve reoccupying parts of northern Gaza.

"This will only make the prime minister more intent to pursue his disengagement plan," Gideon Meir, a senior official in the Foreign Ministry, said of the latest turmoil. "The Palestinians want to convince the world that Israel is withdrawing because of terrorism. We know this is not the truth."

The combined Israeli-Palestinian death toll of 31 on Thursday was the highest single-day count since Israel carried out a sweeping incursion in the West Bank in March and April of 2002. About half of the Palestinian dead were militants and the rest were civilians, according to witnesses and the overburdened staff at Kamal Adwan Hospital, which treated more than 100 Palestinian wounded. At least three teenagers were among the dead, hospital officials said.

In the deadliest single episode, an Israeli tank fired a shell toward Palestinian militants who had just hit an armored Israeli vehicle with a missile, wounding three soldiers, the military said. The tank shell killed seven Palestinians and wounded about 20, with civilians accounting for most of the casualties, according to Palestinian witnesses and the hospital.

Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the Israeli Army commander in Gaza, acknowledged the civilian casualties and expressed regret. He also accused the militants of using civilians as shields.

The Israelis also bulldozed about 20 homes on a narrow road leading into the camp, apparently to allow better access for armored vehicles, Palestinian residents said.

Muhammad Dahlan, a former Palestinian Authority security chief in Gaza and still an influential figure, said in a statement that the Israeli operation would "result in a bloodbath on both sides, because the Palestinian people cannot remain silent in the face of this aggression."

On the Israeli side, a kindergarten teacher was shot dead while on her regular morning jog along a road linking three Jewish settlements on the northern edge of Gaza, just a couple of miles from Jabaliya.

With a heavy nighttime fog providing cover, two Palestinian gunmen breached a fence that protects both sides of the road. The gunmen fatally shot the teacher and then gunned down an army paramedic who arrived moments later outside the Nisanit settlement. Israeli soldiers shot both gunmen to death, officials said.

In a settlement with 300 families, most with small children, virtually everyone knew the slain teacher, Shula Batito, 36, who had run the kindergarten for more than a decade.

Also, an Israeli soldier was killed when two Palestinians opened fire with rifles and grenades at the entrance to a military post near Jabaliya. The Palestinians were then shot to death, the military said.

Israel has staged repeated incursions into northern Gaza, but at best the rocket fire has been reduced only temporarily.

Despite the large military presence, Palestinians fired a rocket on Wednesday night that killed two children, ages 2 and 4, in the Israeli town of Sederot, close to the Gaza border.

Israelis were outraged by the deaths, which came just before the beginning of Sukkot, the fall harvest festival. Officials warned that the military operation in Gaza would be intensified, and Thursday's fighting appeared to confirm that.

But it is not clear whether the Israelis will be able to stop the rocket fire. The Palestinians fired two more rockets at Sederot on Thursday. One damaged a factory, but no one was hurt.

Palestinians are able to set up and fire their simple, homemade Qassam rockets and then flee, all within minutes, making it difficult for the Israeli forces to find them. Most of the rockets have been fired by the Islamic faction Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the attack that killed the two children.

"Thank God the holy warriors have designed these rockets," said Motea al-Sharafi, a Palestinian whose brother was killed during clashes on Wednesday. "They are shaking the Jewish people. This is the way we will take revenge."

Over the past few years the Palestinians have often fired from the cover of citrus and olive groves in northeast Gaza. Israeli bulldozers have flattened thousands of trees, driving the Palestinians deeper inside Gaza. The rockets carry a small payload and have a range of up to five miles, according to the Israeli military. The rockets are inaccurate and rarely cause casualties or damage. But Wednesday's volley, which landed between two residential buildings, wounded about a dozen Israelis in addition to killing the children.

Contributing: Tahgreed El Khodary.