IDF Claims It Did Not Fire at Children During Gaza Operation

Hamas says Sharon will leave Gaza 'vanquished' after 15 killed, including four children, in Sunday's operation in two Gaza refugee camps.

Israeli soldiers did not fire at children during Sunday's operation in two Gaza Strip refugee camps, senior military sources have claimed. The sources say the four children, aged 11-16, who died during Sunday's clashes between troops and Palestinians were killed by grenades thrown by Palestinians during the raid, Israel Radio reported on Monday. The sources asserted that IDF troops received clear orders not to fire at children.

The militant group Hamas vowed to avenge the deaths of the 15 Palestinians killed in an Israel Defense Forces operation in two Gaza Strip refugee camps on Sunday morning. Over 80 Palestinians were wounded in the operation.

The group on Sunday evening published a statement saying "Sharon will pay a heavy price, God-willing, and will only leave the Gaza Strip vanquished and defeated."

Islamic Jihad also vowed to avenge the deaths.

The IDF raid came one day after militants mounted an elaborate attack at the Erez Crossing on the Israel-Gaza border.

Other than the children, all of the dead were armed men. They included nine Hamas members, one member of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and one member of the Popular Resistance Committees.

No Israeli casualties were reported in the raid on the Bureij and Nusseirat refugee camps that began early Sunday morning. The army pulled its troops out of the camps around 10 A.M.

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned Sunday's raid, calling for a return to negotiations on the U.S.-backed road map peace plan. "At a time when they're speaking about withdrawing from Gaza, they're destroying Gaza," Erekat said.

The Palestinian Authority warned that Israel will pay the price for the deadly raid, Army Radio reported. The Palestinian cabinet called the operation a terrorist massacre and alleged that Israel was purposely escalating violence in the territories ahead of its unilateral withdrawal from the area. The cabinet denounced the raids as "state terror against our people" which undermined Palestinian calls for a mutual ceasefire and revival of the road map.

IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon told reporters during a tour of the Erez Crossing between Israel and Gaza on Sunday that he could not rule out the possibility that the recent increase in the number of terror attacks is connected to talk about Israel's planned withdrawal from the territories.

On Saturday, six Palestinians were killed during a failed assault by militants in fake Israeli army jeeps at the Erez Crossing. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades said they carried out a joint strike and pledged more attacks.

Military sources however said that Sunday's raid was planned weeks in advance and was not connected to Saturday's botched suicide assault. Army Radio reported on Sunday that the IDF plans to reopen the Erez Crossing and the industrial zone, closed after Saturday's attack, on Tuesday, as the army fears that closing it would encourage thousands of Palestinian laborers to join the militant groups.

Israeli commentators have speculated the army would step up operations against militant groups in the Gaza Strip before Prime Minister Ariel Sharon puts into motion an evolving plan to evacuate settlements in the area.

Dozens of armored military vehicles took part on Sunday in the pre-dawn hunt for militants in the Bureij and Nusseirat camps in the central Gaza Strip, where tanks choked a main road and explosions thundered in the early morning.

Israeli forces, with at least two Apache helicopters hovering overhead, moved slowly down alleys and side streets on the outskirts of the Bureij and Nusseirat refugee camps. Sniper units were stationed on rooftops, witnesses said.

Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner told the Associated Press, "Terrorism is pouring out of this refugee camp, and we have to stop it. We believe that by doing so we have prevented acts of terror in Israel and saved many human lives."

"This is a pinpoint operation against the terrorist infrastructure in the central Gaza Strip," an Israeli military source said. "Five gunmen approached our forces, who shot them." The army said that during the operation, dozens of anti-tank missiles and at least one bomb were fired at Israeli troops.

The source said militants in the area have been attacking Israeli convoys and firing mortar bombs and Qassam rockets at Jewish settlements.

In Nusseirat, soldiers surrounded the homes of two leaders of the Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella group of members of several militant factions. By midmorning, the army had redeployed in farms around the refugee camp.

In the West Bank, troops blew up an explosives lab near Jenin on Sunday, after finding mortars, gunpowder and materials for preparing bombs in it, Israel Radio reported.