NABLUS, West Bank (AFP) – Seven Palestinians, including an 11-year-old girl, were killed during a major gunbattle with Israeli forces who had raided the main northern West Bank city of Nablus.
The victims, five of whom were members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, were shot dead after troops had encircled a house in the Old City area.
Around 20 jeeps and tanks took part in the operation, with aerial cover from an Israeli helicopter. Troops entered in the early hours and withdrew in the late morning.
The bodies of the Al-Aqsa Brigades fighters and of a sixth militant, who belonged to the leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were all recovered from the same building.
It was not immediately clear whether the youngster, named as Maram Al-Nahleh, had been killed in the same house.
After news of the killings began to filter through the city, clashes broke out between the soldiers and groups of stone-throwers.
Ten Palestinians were wounded during the clashes, including a 14-year-old boy who was in a serious condition in hospital, medics said.
The death of the five Brigades members comes just two days after three other members of the same faction were killed in an Israeli air strike on their car in the nearby town of Jenin.
Leaders of the group have already threatened to take their revenge with an attack on Israel’s commercial capital Tel Aviv and dispatched a suicide bomber, Yussef Taleb Ighbariyeh, who wounded two Israeli soldiers when he blew himself up on Tuesday near the northern West Bank town of Qalqilya.
As is standard after suicide attacks, the Israeli army demolished Taleb Ighbariyeh’s family home in Qalqilya on Wednesday.
Thousands of people were expected to attend the funerals for the latest victims as a general strike was called in Nablus.
Israel has imposed a general closure on the Palestinian territories for the start of the Jewish new year holiday, which was to begin at sundown Wednesday. Police and army reinforcements have been deployed on the streets of the major cities in Israel to man mobile checkpoints.
In a series of newspaper interviews ahead of the new year holiday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been ramming home the message that his controversial Gaza pullout plan will be implemented come what may, rebuffing calls that the project be subjected to a referendum.
But a poll published by the Maariv daily on Wednesday showed that 69 percent of people want a referendum while only 26 percent believe that a vote in parliament would be sufficient.
Asked how they would vote if there were a referendum, 58 percent said that they would vote in favour while 29 percent said they would oppose it.
The survey was published a day after Sharon’s inner cabinet approved a package of compensation for the 8,000 settlers in Gaza and residents of four small Jewish enclaves in the northern West Bank who are due to be uprooted next year.
The disengagement plan, which also envisages the strengthening of control over larger West Bank settlements, has angered many of Sharon’s former allies on the Israeli right and even prompted death threats from extremists.
Police revealed Tuesday that they were investigating death threats against Sharon and the head of the disengagement administration, Jonathan Bassi, which had been received in recent days.
A hardline settler rabbi opposed to the Gaza pullout also told Israeli television he was ready to hold a mystical Jewish ceremony called a “Pulsa Denura” to cast a death curse on Sharon.
Rabbi Yusef Dayan held such a ceremony before the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (news – web sites) by a Jewish extremist opposed to the Oslo peace deal Rabin had signed with the Palestinians.