BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip (AP) – Palestinian militants armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades battled Israeli helicopters and tanks Thursday in the bloodiest day since Israel invaded Gaza over a soldier’s capture. At least 21 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier died.

Another Palestinian was killed in two Israeli airstrikes early Friday on the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.

Israeli troops retook three empty Jewish settlements nearly a year after abandoning them, seeking to carve out a temporary buffer zone in the northern Gaza Strip to prevent militants from firing more rockets into Israel.

After touring Gaza main hospital, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the Islamic militant group Hamas called for international intervention to stop the Israeli offensive, which he called a “crime against humanity.”

Haniyeh said the Israeli push was “a desperate effort to undermine the Palestinian government under the pretext of a search for the missing soldier.”

Throughout the day, Israeli aircraft fired missiles at militants while Israeli tanks took up positions among tightly packed Palestinian homes. Apache helicopters hovered overhead, firing flares and machine guns to support ground troops fighting masked Palestinian gunmen.

Interior Minister Said Siyyam issued the Hamas-led Palestinian administration’s first call to arms since Israel invaded last week, urging Gaza security forces to fulfill their “religious and moral duty to stand up to this aggression and cowardly Zionist invasion.”

Siyyam doesn’t carry much weight with Palestinian security forces, however, because most are loyal to the rival Fatah party led by the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Earlier this week, Hamas militants fired two rockets into the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. No one was hurt, but the rockets were the first to reach a major Israeli population center, indicating militants have obtained longer-range weapons.

In response, Israeli troops moved into the densely populated towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza, where militants often launch rockets.

The army said all attacks were aimed at militants.

“We are doing the utmost effort … to avoid civilian casualties,” said another military official, Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan. “Really, there is no other way of operating against terrorists who are operating inside their own civilian populations.”

Israel began its ground invasion June 28, three days after militants linked to Hamas captured Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, in a daring cross-border raid. Israeli officials said they would do what was necessary to get the soldier back.

On Thursday, the fighting swelled – and so did the death toll.

Israeli helicopter gunships circled over the outskirts of Beit Lahiya, providing support fire as Israeli tanks maneuvered among tightly packed Palestinian homes.

Infantrymen took over one family’s house, locking the inhabitants on the bottom floor of the home and posting snipers on the upper floors. Outside, armored bulldozers pushed up sand embankments to shelter tanks.

Palestinian militants, many wearing black masks, crept down narrow alleys to get close to Israeli forces and open fire with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.

Several militants were seen carrying bombs with electric cables to be buried in alleys or near roads and set off as tanks passed by.

During lulls in the fighting, some Palestinian women and children fled their homes and left the area on foot.

Ali Ajrami, a tailor living in a farm house in Beit Lahiya, was trapped with his nine children in one room after Israeli tanks parked in a garden behind his house and special forces took position on the rooftops of neighboring buildings. Gunfire could be heard nearby.

“We are trapped. I don’t know what to do,” he said. Ajrami said he had stocked up food and diesel fuel before the offensive, but was struggling to keep his children indoors.

Twenty-two Palestinians were reported killed in the fighting Thursday and Friday, including 10 Palestinians who died from airstrikes in the Beit Lahiya area.

A spokesman for the Palestinian Health Ministry, Khaled Radi, said he didn’t know how many civilians were among the dead. He said 67 people had been wounded, including 20 children.

Hamas said six of the dead were its members.

An Israeli soldier died in one skirmish – the first Israeli casualty of the offensive, which has seen a total of 28 Palestinian deaths.

Israel Radio and Army Radio said the army was checking the possibility that the Israeli soldier was killed by errant Israeli gunfire. The army spokesman’s office denied that, saying he was killed by a Palestinian gunman.

Lt. Col. Yaniv, a battalion commander, said there had been stiff resistance. “The Palestinians have been firing rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons, and setting off explosive devices,” said Yaniv, who only gave his first name under military regulations.

Palestinian militants launched eight homemade rockets at southern Israel on Thursday, including five in a one-hour period and one that landed off the coast of Ashkelon. No damage or injuries were reported.

A buffer zone could be the only way to keep Israeli population centers out of rocket range. But such a zone brings back bitter memories of the security zone Israel carved out in southern Lebanon for 18 years in an attempt to prevent Hezbollah guerrillas from firing rockets at Israel.

Hezbollah still fired rockets, and southern Lebanon became a deadly battlefield. Pressure from concerned parents and Israelis opposed to the occupation forced Israel to withdraw in May 2000.

Acting on behalf of Arab nations, Qatar circulated a draft resolution to put before the U.N. Security Council demanding that Israel end its offensive and release Palestinian officials detained during the operation.

The draft drew opposition from the United States and France, which called it unbalanced in its criticism of Israel. France’s ambassador said he would offer changes, but U.S. Ambassador John Bolton suggested Washington opposed the resolution entirely – raising the possibility the U.S. would exercise its veto on the council to block the resolution.

In Rome, Italy’s foreign minister called the scale of Israel’s offensive out of proportion, Italian news agencies reported.

“It’s unthinkable that to save one hostage we would embark in an operation that would cause the deaths of dozens of people,” the reports quoted Massimo D’Alema as saying.

Shalit’s captors have demanded that Israel release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for information about the soldier. Israel has publicly refused to negotiate, but could be indirectly communicating with Hamas through mediators from Egypt and Turkey.

On Thursday, Noam Shalit, the captive’s father, urged Israel to consider releasing Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his son.

“Everything has a price. I don’t think there will be some sort of move to free Gilad without a price. That’s not the way it works in the Middle East,” the elder Shalit said in his first comment on the government’s handling of the affair.



Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Gaza City.

AP-ES-07-07-06 0022EDT



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