GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli forces using dozens of tanks and attack helicopters pushed into the Rafah refugee camp Saturday during one of the largest military incursions into the Gaza Strip in 30 months of fighting.
Three were killed, including a 15-year-old boy.
The incursion came as Palestinian leaders raced to meet a self-imposed deadline for a new Palestinian government — a key requirement toward unveiling a U.S.-backed peace plan — and a cameraman for Associated Press News Television was shot and killed while filming clashes in which wounded 17 Palestinians in Nablus.
In the cramped Rafah refugee camp on the Egypt-Gaza border, at least 35 Palestinians were shot by Israeli troops, witnesses said. A 15-year-old boy and two men in their 20s were killed, Palestinian doctors said. Another four people were in critical condition, they said.
Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the army was operating in the Rafah area, but would not give details.
Israeli forces penetrated the camp from three directions using more than 35 tanks and armored personnel carriers, bulldozers and jeeps. Five attack helicopters circled above, flashing spotlights above the crowded area where approximately 60,000 live.
The incursion appeared to have targeted the Yibna neighborhood, one of two known militant strongholds in the Rafah refugee camp.
“I was sitting outside with some friends playing cards when suddenly we came under fire,” said Marwan Khatib, 39, who lives in the camp which is less than 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the Egypt border. “Bullets hit the wall next to us and tanks were coming toward us very fast.”
The army knocked out electricity in part of the Rafah camp, casting darkness over sections, witnesses said. Ambulances could be heard rushing to the area with sirens wailing. Rafah Mayor Said Zourab said undercover soldiers were raiding homes and troops were in control of most of the camp.
Rafah has been a flashpoint of tensions between Israeli troops and Palestinians. Recently, foreign peace activists have set up protest camps to block military incursions.
A British peace activist who was allegedly shot by Israeli troops in Rafah on April 11 remained in serious condition Saturday, registering scant brain activity. Tom Hurndall, 21, was shot in the head by Israeli troops as he tried to help two children out of a line of fire, witnesses said. “The outlook isn’t promising,” said father Anthony Hurndall of London.
Hurndall was a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement, a group based in the West Bank and Gaza. The army has said it is investigating his shooting.
Another peace activist with the group — Rachel Corrie of Olympia, Washington — died March 16 in Rafah trying to stop an Israeli bulldozer during a military incursion.
The operation in the refugee camp came hours after clashes in the West Bank city of Nablus killed APTN cameraman Nazeh Darwazeh, 43, and wounded 17 others.
Doctors said he died of a bullet wound to the head. Palestinian witnesses said he was shot by an Israeli soldier, while the military said there were exchanges of gunfire in the area and that it was not clear who was responsible for his death.
Darwazeh was filming clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians in Nablus. In one frame of video footage taken, an armored vehicle is shown stuck at the top of a flight of steps in an alley, its front touching the wall of a house. Footage shows a man with a rifle in green combat fatigues kneeling down between the armored personnel carrier and the wall of the house at the top of the alley. Witnesses identified the man as an Israeli soldier.
Three different sequences — taken by Reuters, by local Nablus TV and by Darwazeh himself — suggest it was this man who fired the shot that killed Darwazeh; it remains unclear, however, whether he had taken aim at the journalists and whether shots had been fired at the tank from down the steps.
Video footage taken by a Reuters cameraman showed several young Palestinian men running up the alley toward the tank and throwing stones at the vehicle.
The army said it was in Nablus looking for a would-be female suicide bomber and her recruiter, who troops arrested. Another two would-be suicide bombers were arrested elsewhere Saturday in the West Bank.
Darwazeh had worked for APTN for two years and leaves a wife and five children.
In a separate incident Saturday night, a Palestinian gunman infiltrated the Jewish settlement of Shaked in the northern West Bank, wounding two soldiers and a civilian, military officials said. Soldiers shot and killed the gunman.
The clashes on Saturday came amid efforts to end violence and resume peace talks — widely seen as conditioned on the success of reforms currently underway in the Palestinian Authority, especially the appointment of a prime minister to take over some powers from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Prime minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas stormed out of a meeting with Arafat and top aides held in a bid to meet a self-imposed deadline for a new Palestinian government, a key requirement toward unveiling the so-called “road map” to ending violence and establishing a Palestinian state.
Abbas and Arafat have been at odds over the role of former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan, tapped by Abbas as minister of state for internal affairs, a role which would have some control over security matters.
Tensions erupted Saturday when leaders of Fatah, Arafat’s political movement, said Dahlan could have any job not dealing with security, according to a senior Palestinian official present who was present and spoke on condition of anonymity.
After about an hour of discussions, Abbas left the meeting and threatened to resign unless his choices were accepted, the official said. Later in the evening, Abbas was meeting with a lower-level Fatah gathering. Officials said that meeting would likely drag into Sunday morning.
The deadline for a new government is Wednesday.