Beit Hanoun (Gaza), Feb. 23 (Reuters): Israeli forces killed eight Palestinians and an Israeli soldier was shot dead today as Israel’s centre-left Labour Party said it was pulling out of talks on joining Ariel Sharon’s coalition.
Israeli troops also shot dead a “suspicious” Palestinian in the West Bank who ignored orders to stop, military sources said. The deaths raised to 42 the number of Palestinians killed this week, most in Israeli military raids into Gaza prompted by cross-border rocket attacks by the Islamic militant group Hamas. “We hold Israel fully responsible for this escalation,” senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
On the political front, Israel’s centre-left Labour Party said it was pulling out of talks on forming a coalition after Prime Minister Sharon signed a coalition deal with the pro-settlement National Religious Party.
The decision dashed Sharon’s hopes of forming a unity government to try to provide much-needed economic stability to Israel, which has been rocked by a 29-month-old Palestinian uprising for statehood.
Israeli armoured columns backed by helicopter gunships rumbled into the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun shortly after midnight today, battling gunmen, destroying the homes of six Islamic militants and tearing up roads.
Palestinian sources said six Palestinians were killed in Beit Hanoun, including four gunmen and members of the Palestinian security forces, and one stonethrower. A seventh Palestinian, armed with an AK-47 rifle and hand grenades, was killed during an attempt to infiltrate the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in central Gaza, the army said.
In Khan Younis refugee camp to the south, a Palestinian gunman shot dead a soldier at a nearby base, the army said. Troops later killed a 15-year-old in a Khan Younis playground, Palestinian medical officials and witnesses said. Military sources said troops fired after being shot at.
Today, two “Qassam” rockets were fired from northern Gaza, shrieking over Beit Hanoun towards the Israeli town of Sderot. A police spokesman said at least one rocket struck inside the town, causing no casualties.
Hamas has stepped up launches of its makeshift rockets over the week. Israel’s Cabinet today declared Sderot a “confrontation-line” community warranting special investment and benefits, like towns on the tinderbox border with Lebanon.