Israel deploys largest force to Gaza since 1967

Special to World
Thursday, May 20, 2004

GAZA CITY Israel's military was said to have deployed its largest force in the Gaza Strip since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israeli military sources said a force the size of nearly two brigades has been deployed in the Gaza Strip to participate in and support Operation Rainbow. The operation was meant to isolate the southern Gaza town of Rafah from the rest of the strip, capture Palestinian insurgents as well as destroy strongholds and weapons tunnels.

Palestinian sources said 20 people were killed in the first day of fighting between the military and insurgents, with the most intense fighting taking place in the area of Tel Sultan. Many of the Palestinian casualties stemmed from Israeli missile strikes by AH-64A Apache attack helicopters.

Another two Palestinians were killed in fighting with Israeli forces on Wednesday.

The combined Israeli force consisted of elite infantry units, including the Paratroop Brigade and Givati Brigade, and supported by nearly 100 main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and armored bulldozers. The force has also been backed by attack helicopters and unmanned air vehicles.

Israeli military sources reported light Palestinian resistance in the the fighting, which included an Israeli house-to-house search. Insurgents were said to have employed assault rifles, roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.

In several cases, the sources said, Fatah and Hamas insurgents attempted to convert children into human shields and use ambulances to transport weapons and escape the area. The sources said this has hampered the evacuation of Palestinian civilians injured in the fighting.

"Due to continuing exchanges of fire between IDF [Israel Defense Forces] forces and Palestinian gunmen in the area of the activity, the movement of ambulances is being stalled from time to time in an effort to allow the passage of ambulances without any security risk," a military statement said.

Unlike previous operations, the military brought liasion and community affairs officers to ensure the humanitarian needs of the residents of Rafah.

The sources said these officers arranged for the evacuation of civilians from the battle zone.

The United Nations said up to 500 people have left their homes and sought refuge in UN Relief Works Agency schools in Rafah.

Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon said the military operation stemmed from accelerated weapons smuggling from Egypt to the Gaza Strip. Ya'alon said Iran and the Hizbullah were trying to send Katyusha rockets through the Sinai Peninsula to weapons tunnels that connect with the Gaza Strip. The military captured a Hamas agent deemed a key figure in the operation of the tunnels.

"We know of the arrival of weapons on the Egyptian side of the border," Ya'alon said. "The one responsible is Hizbullah along with Iran. They are trying to penetrate the borders. They are trying to bring in Katyushas."

Ya'alon told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Hizbullah and Iran have brought Katyusha rockets, anti-tank missiles, surface-to-air missiles and RPGs to the Egyptian side of Rafah. The chief of staff did not say whether Egyptian authorities were trying to capture the weapons.

Over the last six weeks, Ya'alon said, Israel has foiled 15 Palestinian suicide bombings. He said six of those planned attacks stemmed from the northern West Bank city of Nablus.

Military sources said the Rafah operation included the demolition of homes of suspected insurgents. But they said the military would not exploit the fighting to widen the Egyptian-Gaza border corridor. Overnight Wednesday, Israeli engineering units demolished the home of a Palestinian insurgent who killed five Israeli civilians in an ambush earlier this month.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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