A 12-year-old girl was killed Saturday evening by Israel Defense Forces sniper fire in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanun, bringing to 27 the Palestinian death toll in Gaza since the start of the weekend.
The IDF said that Isra Nasser, who died of head wounds, had been shot by a sniper targeting an armed militant, and expressed regret at the killing. At least 11 of the dead were civilians, and include two members of rescue crews.
IDF troops have been in Beit Hanun since Wednesday morning, in an operation aimed at halting Qassam rocket attacks on southern Israel. Nevertheless, Palestinian militants have continued to fire the homemade rockets, and seven hit the western Negev on Saturday evening. No injuries were reported, although a building in one of the local kibbutzim was lightly damaged.
Also Saturday, an IDF officer was seriously wounded in clashes with militants in the town, and another soldier was lightly hurt.
Across the Strip, five Hamas militants and three civilians were killed Saturday, bringing to 42 the Palestinian death toll there since the start of the operation. The dead militants include a top Hamas rocket-maker, Louay al-Borno, who was killed in an Israel Air Force strike in his vehicle in Gaza City.
The other two civilians killed Saturday were named as 46-year-old Marwan Abu Arbid, who was killed when the wall of a building collapsed, and Ahmed al-Mad'un, a paramedic.
Witnesses reported on Saturday morning that large military bulldozers began demolishing homes near a mosque that was the scene of a standoff on Friday. Witnesses said residents of the homes received no warning ahead of time and were seen running for safety.
Residents also reported six IAF strikes in Beit Hanun overnight, but said there were no injuries.
Atef Adwan, minister of refugee affairs in the Hamas government, told a local Hamas radio station Saturday that IDF troops had taken over the rooftop of his home in Beit Hanun and posted snipers there. He said he and his family fled to a neighbor's house.
By mid-morning Saturday, the army announced over loudspeakers that women were permitted to leave their homes for two hours to stock up on supplies. However, few shops were open, said resident Samia Adwan, 35, a secretary in the Palestinian Authority and a distant relative of the Hamas minister.
She said she saw outer walls destroyed by bulldozers, streets carved up by tanks, and dangling electricity wires.
Iyad Nasser, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said he reached Beit Hanun on Friday evening to deliver supplies to the local hospital. "People stood at the doors [to their homes] and shouted they need water and food," he said.
On Saturday morning, aid groups were permitted to deliver supplies to Beit Hanun, he said.
A senior Israeli military official confirmed that the Beit Hanun sweep was different from previous Israeli incursions into Gaza, which resumed after Shalit's kidnapping by Hamas militants. In the past, he said, troops would largely stay on the outskirts of populated areas instead of operating house-to-house as in Beit Hanun.
The Palestinians appealed for international intervention to pressure Israel to halt the campaign.
19 Palestinians killed in Gaza on FridayAt least 19 Palestinians were killed in IDF operations Friday in the Gaza Strip. Eight were civilians, including a 4-year-old boy and two women, aged 40 and 45.
On Friday night, three IAF strikes around the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya and the southern town of Rafah killed seven militants and wounded several more, Palestinian security officials said.
A few hours earlier, an air strike hit a makeshift mosque on the outskirts of Beit Hanun, killing at least one person and injuring three others.
The small building, known as the Abdullah Azzem Mosque, was used for prayer but did not have the outward signs or markings of a mosque.
The IDF said it targeted a group of militants who were planting an explosive device near a road junction. The militants were out in the open, the army said, and no building was targeted in the strike.
Earlier Friday, the 40-year-old woman was killed by IDF fire as women flocked to a Beit Hanun mosque to act as human shields for some 60 gunmen holed up inside.
Mosque standoffThe 19-hour standoff between IDF troops and the gunmen inside the mosque ended after the gunmen fled, the IDF and witnesses said. One woman was killed in the standoff.
The militants escaped under cover of the protest by the women outside, the army said. A military source said some of the gunmen had surrendered to the soldiers.
Still, troops and militants continued to trade fire in two buildings next to the mosque, and the IDF surrounded the Beit Hanun hospital, calling on militants inside to surrender, Israel Radio reported.
A senior Southern Command officer said Friday that troops fired in a selective manner in order to prevent further casualties.
"What happened will be investigated. We will check if something inappropriate happened," he said.
Despite the casualties, the commander described the operation as a success, but said he does not expect the launching of Qassam rockets from Beit Hanun to be diminished immediately.
He said dozens of Palestinians had been detained for questioning in Israel.
The mosque became the focus of the fighting in Beit Hanun after gunmen fled there late Thursday. Most were thought to belong to Hamas' military wing.
IDF tanks and armored personnel carriers quickly surrounded the building, and the two sides began exchanging fire that lasted throughout the night, the military and Palestinian security officials said.
Soldiers trying to pressure the gunmen to surrender also threw stun and smoke grenades, and knocked down an outer wall of the mosque with a bulldozer. The roof of the mosque later collapsed.
A Hamas radio station had broadcast a call to women to go to Beit Hanun to shield the militants. Dozens of women left their homes to hurry to the mosque and came under IDF fire on their way, witnesses and officials said.
The army said that troops had spotted two militants hiding in the crowd of women and opened fire.
As the women rushed away from the scene, at least two men disguised in women's clothes were seen in the crowd. Jubilant bystanders embraced them, celebrating their escape.
"Our fighters made holes through the nearby houses to the mosque. The women entered the mosque as the fighters managed to guide the gunmen out," said Hamas militant commander Abu Ubaida.
Israel had allowed trucks loaded with medical and food supplies to reach hospitals, and for ambulances to evacuate the wounded, said Colonel Nir Press, head of Israel's Coordination and Liaison Administration for the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas "saluted the women of Palestine ... who led the protest to break the siege of Beit Hanun." Haniyeh urged United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to witness firsthand "the massacres of the Palestinian people," and appealed to the Arab world to "stop the ongoing bloodshed."
Dozens of protesters also took sanctuary in a UN school in Beit Hanun, fearing retribution by troops, said Imad Okal, an official with the UN Relief and Works Agency, who said he was in touch with people at the school.
Loudspeakers across Gaza called on people to come to demonstrations after Friday prayers to express solidarity with Beit Hanun. Tens of thousands representing various Palestinian factions massed in streets throughout the Strip.
Also Friday, a Hamas gunman was killed during clashes in Beit Hanun and four militants from Iz al-Din al-Qassam, Hamas' military wing, were killed in an IAF strike in the Gaza City neighborhood of Sajaiya.
Palestinians launched ten Qassam rockets at the Negev on Friday and fired an anti-tank rocket at an IDF post in south Gaza, lightly wounding a soldier. According to the military, 300 rockets have been fired at Israel from Beit Hanun since the start of the year.
Two killed in West BankIn the West Bank, Palestinians said an elderly woman was killed during an IDF arrest raid in the town of Bethlehem on Friday morning. A Border Police officer was also wounded.
The woman, 65, was caught in a crossfire between militants holed up in a house and IDF soldiers surrounding the building, Palestinian witnesses said. Two other residents were wounded, they said.
The IDF said forces were operating in Bethlehem, but provided no other details.
Also Friday, IDF troops shot dead a Fatah militant in the West Bank who was apparently planning to detonate a car bomb.
Troops opened fire on two Palestinian men pulling barbed wire into a car at the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, killing one and wounding the other. The car was later found filled with tens of kilograms of explosives.
Israel arrested Palestinian Minister Abdel Rahman Zaidan, a Hamas official, at his home in the West Bank town of Ramallah before dawn Friday, Israel Radio quoted Israeli and Palestinian sources as saying. According to the report, Zaidan, the minister of housing and public works, is the tenth Palestinian minister to be arrested since Shalit was abducted.
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