Bloody Israeli-Palestinian Fighting Erupts in Gaza

Clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants in northern Gaza leave one Israeli soldier and more than 20 Palestinians dead. Israel invaded Gaza with the stated goal of freeing a captive soldier and protecting its territory from Palestinian rockets.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

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There were more Israeli airstrikes today against targets in northern Gaza, that following the bloodiest days of clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen in nearly two years. Yesterday, the Israeli army pushed deeper into Gaza as it seeks to halt rocket attacks on Israeli towns and locate that captured Israeli soldier. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

On the edge of the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahya, several members of Islamic Jihad clutch American made M-16 automatic rifles and man a makeshift position. Islamic Jihad has carried out scores of deadly suicide bombings against civilians in Israel. Now, 30-year-old Abu Hamza says the group is ready to meet the Israeli armored forces with everything from rocket-propelled grenades to suicide bombers if they push deeper into town.

Mr. ABEL HAMZA (Member, Islamic Jihad):(through translator) By the will of God they are going to be welcomed with rockets, bullets, mines, RPGs, explosives cars, and people who are ready to blow up themselves on them.

WESTERVELT: Bravado aside, Israeli armored and special forces, so far, have been able to move relatively easily in northern Gaza. One Israeli soldier was killed by sniper fire Thursday, Israel's first casualty since the operation began more than a week ago. At least 21 Palestinians have been killed in the last 24 hours.

(Soundbite of siren)

WESTERVELT: All day, Palestinian medics struggled to reach the wounded. As tanks fired nearby, 48-year-old ambulance driver Abu Muhammed(ph) says it's been tough to work amid the chaos and uncertainties of urban combat.

(Soundbite of explosions)

Mr. ABU MUHAMMED (Palestinian Ambulance Driver): (Through translator) Our neighborhoods or areas where we cannot reach anymore. The people there asking us to come to rescue some people, but it is impossible to enter and to reach that area because the Israelis are there.

WESTERVELT: Several civilians were killed along with the militants fighting the Israelis. An Israeli general today said his soldiers are trying to avoid civilian casualties, but added, quote, "really, there is no other way of operating against terrorists who are operating inside their own civilian populations."

Near Beit Lahya, members of the Rahdwan(ph) family sit on the sidewalk watching the nearby fighting and listening intently on a transistor radio for any local news of the Israeli advance. 77-year-old Hassan Rahdwan(ph) says he's angry at Israel, but blames the United States.

Mr. HASSAN RAHDWAN: (Through translator) Palestinian people hold America responsible. They are the superpower of the world. They can rule the whole world, but they have to do it with justice, not with double standards.

WESTERVELT: The Hamas government, meanwhile, is in deep disarray. Israel has arrested nearly one third of the Hamas cabinet and scores of elected Hamas legislators on terrorism charges. And now, Israeli tanks have moved into key parts of northern and southern Gaza. As an Israeli attack helicopter circles nearby, Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad insists the Hamas government is still in charge.

Mr. GHAZI HAMAD (Spokesman, Hamas): No not close, but really we are suffering from a difficult situation, a situation very dangerous that the prime minister is a target and the minister of foreign affairs, the minister of the interior, they cannot move freely or normally. They can't kill anyone.

WESTERVELT: Last night, Hamas Interior Minister Said Siyam called on the uniform security forces to, quote, "stand up to this aggression and cowardly Zionist invasion."

But Siyam didn't appear in public or issue the call himself. He sent out his spokesman, Khaled Abu Hilal, to do it.

Mr. KHALED ABU HILAL (Spokesman, Hamas Interior Minister):(Through translator) Israeli enemy is attacking everything Palestinian. The minister has ordered all the security forces to stand with resistance against occupation.

WESTERVELT: It's not clear how many have taken up that call. The majority of the uniform security forces here are loyal to Hamas rival, Fata, and its leader, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. So far, Abbas' forces have largely stayed out of the fight.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza.

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