Gaza, May 15 (Reuters): Israeli forces killed a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, two gunmen and a youth today in a raid on a Gaza town that coincided with the Palestinians’ annual commemoration of their displacement during Israel’s creation.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who Israel and the US have tried to sideline in favour of a new reformist Prime Minister, took centre stage on “Nakba” (Catastrophe) day in a televised address to his people.
“No peace before the full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian and Arab lands to the line of June 1967,” Arafat said. Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war.
Under the cover of darkness, the army sent tanks and infantry into Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip to search for militants who have been launching rockets and mortar bombs at Jewish settlements in Gaza and a town in southern Israel.
Witnesses said 12-year-old Mohammed al-Za’anin was among the four killed by Israeli troops and said the homes of four suspected militants were demolished during what the army described as an open-ended operation.
Fifteen Palestinians were wounded.
The violence preceded talks planned for Saturday between Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. They are to discuss a new Middle East peace plan known as the“road map”.
The proposal, backed by the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia, calls for an end to 31 months of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed, reciprocal confidence-building measures and a Palestinian state by 2005.
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a senior adviser to Arafat, accused Israel of trying to“blow up the road map” by stepping up its incursions in the Gaza Strip.
Citing security concerns, Israel has not accepted the plan. Sharon will voice his right-wing government's objections at White House talks with U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday.
The Nakba anniversary has taken on extra resonance this year because Abbas is a refugee himself. He took office on April 30 after intense international pressure on Arafat to appoint a prime minister to carry out democratic and security reforms.
Palestinians attended rallies holding banners with the names of villages in what is now Israel from which they fled or were expelled in the war over the Jewish state's founding in 1948.
Sirens sounded in Gaza City, bringing life to a standstill for three minutes as Palestinians honoured brethren killed in violence with Israel.
Some 20,000 people marched in a rally in the city as a loudspeaker blared:“They said the old die and children forget, we will never forget and we will return.”
Israel rejects any right of return for the estimated four million Palestinian refugees to what is now the Jewish state, saying such an influx would be demographic suicide.