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6 Killed, 40 Wounded in Mideast Clashes

April 20, 2003

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Israeli troops swept into the Gaza Strip’s Rafah refugee camp early Sunday, destroying tunnels and blowing up a militant’s house in one of the largest raids in 30 months of fighting. At least five Palestinians and one soldier were killed.

Palestinians retaliated by firing three Qassam rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, Mayor Pinchas Yosef Cohen said.

One of the missiles landed on a building in the center of the town, wounding at least one woman and setting the structure on fire. Townspeople were evacuated from their homes, Cohen said.

In the West Bank city of Nablus on Saturday, an Associated Press Television News cameraman was shot and killed during a clash between Israeli forces and Palestinians.

The violence came as Palestinian leaders continued to argue over the makeup of a new Cabinet under premier-designate Mahmoud Abbas. The United States and other powers have said they will present a new Mideast peace plan once the government takes office.

At least 40 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli troops during the raid on the Rafah refugee camp on the Egypt-Gaza border, witnesses said. A 15-year-old boy, three men in their 20s and a policeman were killed, Palestinian doctors said.

One soldier was killed and three others were wounded by a sniper, the army said in a statement.

Israeli forces penetrated Rafah from three directions, using more than 35 tanks and armored personnel carriers, bulldozers and jeeps. Five attack helicopters circled above, flashing spotlights above the crowded camp, where approximately 60,000 live.

``I was sitting outside with some friends playing cards when suddenly we came under fire,″ said Marwan Khatib, 39. ``Bullets hit the wall next to us and tanks were coming toward us very fast.″

The Israeli military said soldiers destroyed two tunnels used for smuggling weapons under the Gaza-Egypt border and blew up the house of local Hamas leader Mahmoud Abu Shamala.

In a written statement, the military said Palestinians attacked the Israelis with firearms, explosives and anti-tank rockets. The soldiers returned fire and hit some of the gunmen, it said.

The Israelis pulled out before daybreak, the statement said.

Rafah has been a flashpoint of tensions between Israeli troops and Palestinians. Recently foreign peace activists have set up protest camps to try to block military incursions. One American peace activist has been killed and a British demonstrator seriously wounded in the confrontations.

The operation in the refugee camp came hours after clashes in the West Bank city of Nablus. APTN cameraman Nazeh Darwazeh, 43, was killed and 17 other people were wounded.

Doctors said Darwazeh died of a bullet wound to the head. Palestinian witnesses said he was shot by an Israeli soldier, while the military said there were exchanges of gunfire in the area and that it was not clear who was responsible for his death.

Darwazeh was filming clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians in Nablus. In one frame of video footage, an armored vehicle is shown stuck at the top of a flight of steps in an alley, its front touching the wall of a house.

Footage shows a man with a rifle in green combat fatigues kneeling down between the armored personnel carrier and the wall of the house at the top of the alley. Witnesses identified the man as an Israeli soldier.

Three different sequences _ taken by Reuters, by local Nablus TV and by Darwazeh himself _ suggest it was this man who fired the shot that killed Darwazeh; it remains unclear, however, whether he had been aiming at the journalists and whether shots had been fired at the tank from down the steps.

Video footage taken by a Reuters cameraman showed several young Palestinian men running up the alley toward the tank and throwing stones at the vehicle.

Darwazeh had worked for APTN for two years and leaves a wife and five children.

The clashes came amid efforts to end violence and resume peace talks. Those are widely believed to depend on the success of reforms currently underway in the Palestinian Authority, especially the appointment of a prime minister to take over some powers from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Abbas stormed out of a meeting with Arafat and top aides to name a new Cabinet, a key requirement toward unveiling the so-called ``road map″ peace plan to end violence and establish a Palestinian state.

Abbas and Arafat have been at odds over the role of former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan. Abbas tapped him to be minister of state for internal affairs, giving him some control over security matters.

A dispute erupted Saturday when leaders of Fatah, Arafat’s political movement, said Dahlan could have any job not dealing with security, according to a senior Palestinian official.

After about an hour of discussions, Abbas left the meeting and threatened to resign unless his choices were accepted, the official said.

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