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by KEVIN FRAYER, Associated Press Writer
Thursday, May. 20, 2004 at 12:27 PM
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RAFAH, Gaza Strip - Israeli forces fired a missile and a tank shell Wednesday into a large crowd of Palestinians demonstrating against the invasion of a neighboring refugee camp, witnesses said. At least 10 Palestinians were killed, all children and teenagers, a Palestinian health official said.
At least 50 people were wounded, 36 critically, Palestinian hospital officials said.
Palestinian witnesses saw a missile land in the middle of the crowd of 3,000 demonstrators, and Associated Press Television Network footage showed smoke and debris flying as a large explosion rocked the area. The footage then showed Palestinians carrying the wounded, including children, from the smoky scene.
Military sources said on condition of anonymity that a helicopter and a tank fired one round each near the crowd after soldiers felt threatened.
Palestinian witnesses said four missiles and four tank shells were fired, and they also heard machine-gun fire from tanks.
The White House said it was "very concerned" about the reports.
"We've asked for the government of Israel for the facts about what happened today," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Wednesday. "We continue to follow this closely. We urge all parties to exercise maximum restraint."
Israeli defense sources said senior officers, including the chief of staff, were in an emergency meeting to investigate the incident.
"We are still checking the event. This is a combat zone filled with explosives devices and it is premature to know exactly what happened this afternoon in Rafah," army spokeswoman Maj. Sharon Feingold said.
The demonstrators were marching down the busy main street of Rafah town, protesting against the Israeli invasion of the nearby Tel Sultan neighborhood in Rafah refugee camp. When the crowd was less than a mile from the besieged camp, the helicopter and tank began firing, witnesses said.
The wounded were evacuated to the Rafah hospital by ambulance, private cars and donkey carts, witnesses said. The hospital stairs and floors were drenched in blood as doctors shouted for help and blood donations. Hospital staff treated the wounded on the floors after quickly running out of beds.
Dr. Moawiya Hassanain, a senior Palestinian Health Ministry official, said at least 10 people were killed and 50 wounded. Of the wounded, 23 were critically hurt and 13 were in "hopeless" condition. Most of the wounded were children, he said.
"We cannot handle the situation, no hospital in the world can handle the situation," Hassanain said.
"I got instruction from President (Yasser) Arafat to mobilize all our teams to Rafah immediately and declare a state of emergency all over Gaza Strip (news - web sites) hospitals."
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath told The Associated Press the attack was "a terrorist massacre and a terrorist war crime."
The strike came as Israeli troops stormed homes in the Palestinian refugee camp in an ongoing search for militants and illegal weapons, confining tens of thousands of residents to houses without electricity or water.
The invasion, launched Tuesday, knocked out power in the camp, home to an estimated 90,000 people, local Palestinian officials said. By Wednesday, they said, water service had been halted as well.
Twenty Palestinians — the highest single-day death toll in more than two years — were killed on the first day of the army's "Operation Rainbow" offensive. The victims included a 13-year-old boy and his 16-year-old sister.
International condemnation mounted against the operation, and the United States was asking Israel for "clarification," said Paul Patin, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
President Bush (news - web sites) has described the violence as "troubling" but said Israel had the right to defend itself from terrorism.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (news - web sites) condemned the Gaza offensive as "unacceptable and wrong."
The United Nations (news - web sites) and European Union (news - web sites) demanded an end to the incursion, which Israeli security officials said would last at least a week.
The massive invasion — the largest in the Gaza Strip in years — came less than a week after Palestinian militants killed 13 soldiers, including seven in the Rafah area.
Israel said it was targeting armed militants, but Palestinians said many of Tuesday's casualties were civilians.
Palestinians said the teenage brother and sister were killed by an Israeli sniper as they gathered laundry from their rooftop.
But the military said an initial investigation found no Israeli soldiers had fired in that area at the time of the shootings. The military said the two apparently were killed by a Palestinian bomb aimed at troops.
Early Wednesday, the army said it demolished the home of Ibrahim Ahmed, an Islamic Jihad militant it said was responsible for a shooting attack earlier this month that killed a pregnant Israeli woman and her four daughters near a Gaza settlement. Palestinian witnesses said at least three homes were demolished overnight.
Ali Bayomi, a 55-year-old resident of Rafah, said soldiers disguised as Hamas militants arrested two of his cousins and were using the men as human shields as they conducted searches of homes. The army did not comment.
Salwa Abu Jazar, a 33-year-old mother of four, said the noise from combat helicopters and shooting kept her family up much of the night.
"There is no water, no electricity, and it is very hard to move inside the house using candles because snipers in the building next door will shoot you," Abu Jazar said.
The army said it shot and hit two armed men overnight in Rafah. Palestinian residents said one man was shot in the head and stomach, the other in the leg. They said the intense fighting was making it hard for ambulances to evacuate the dead and wounded.
The facades of Rafah buildings were riddled with holes from Israeli machine guns. Residents said the rocket and gun fire had confined them to the innermost rooms of their homes.
Saleem Katib, 25, said his ailing, elderly father went to morning prayers early Tuesday and still had not returned. Trapped by the fighting and the military curfew, the man was holed up near the mosque with other worshippers, his son said.
"How can you believe that a man can't reach his home when he is only 20 meters away?" Katib said.
In all, 19 Palestinians were killed Tuesday by Israeli fire — 10 in two separate missile strikes and nine by machine-gun fire, Hassanain said. A 20th man was killed while handling explosives.
Arafat denounced the incursion as a "planned massacre."
"What is happening in Rafah is an operation to destroy and to transfer the local Palestinian population, and this must not be accepted, not by the Palestinians, nor the Arabs, nor by the international community," an angry Arafat told reporters at his West Bank compound.
Israel's Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a petition by 46 Rafah residents against demolition of their homes, giving the army the right to tear down buildings that could be used for attacking troops.
Troops demolished four houses Tuesday, witnesses said. The Israeli army chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, said homes would be destroyed only if gunmen used them as firing positions or to cover up tunnels.
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