GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli forces backed by 30 tanks and three helicopters stormed into central Gaza City early Thursday — the deepest incursion into the city in more than two years, Palestinian security officials and witnesses said.
In the second major incursion by Israeli troops in as many days, the army raided the two-story home of Yosef Meqdiad, an officer in the Palestinian preventive security service, to arrest him and three of his brothers, according to a 21-year-old relative, Majida Meqdiad.
The operation began about 2 a.m. and ended less than two hours later. Soldiers fired machine guns as they penetrated just over a mile into the city from the south, witnesses said.
The army declined immediate comment.
Also Thursday, Israeli troops surrounded a house in the West Bank town of Tulkarem where they believe the suspected mastermind of an attack on a collective farm is hiding, Palestinian security sources said.
The forces took over the nearby houses and called on the family inside the house where they believe Mohammed Niefe is hiding to leave, the security sources said on condition of anonymity. Soldiers periodically fired at the house.
Also in Tulkarem, the army demolished the home of Tarek Samir Sapaka, 22. Sapaka shot and killed three people, including two teenage girls, in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Hermesh on Oct. 29 before being killed in a gunfight with soldiers and residents.
Thursday's Gaza incursion marked the farthest penetration by Israeli forces into the city since renewed fighting erupted between Palestinians and Israelis in the fall of 2000, witnesses said.
It came hours after Yasser Arafat warned Wednesday against any attempt to send him into exile, while Israeli Cabinet ministers repeated calls to drive the Palestinian leader out of the region following an attack that killed five Israelis.
The proposal to expel Arafat, backed by several members of Israel's Security Cabinet, failed to win approval Wednesday.
The move into Gaza City also followed Wednesday's incursion into the West Bank's largest city, Nablus, by dozens of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles to round up 30 suspected Palestinian militants in what was the biggest security sweep in months.
In Thursday's early-morning raid in central Gaza City, Israeli forces rolled into the Talalhawa neighborhood, an area where the headquarters of the preventive security service and the studios of Palestinian state television are located.
Troops also swept into the neighborhood of Sabra, home to many members of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, including its spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
Two Palestinians, including a guard at the television station, were taken to hospital with light injuries. At least a dozen ambulances rushed to the area of the siege, witnesses said.
At least two bulldozers took part in the operation, though witnesses said they were not used. The Israeli army often uses bulldozers to demolish homes of militants suspected to have carried out attacks against Israelis.
In a pre-dawn strike a day earlier, Israeli helicopters fired four missiles on a suspected weapons-making workshop in the city center, the second such strike on the site in two days.
The attack demolished an automotive repair shop whose owner insisted had nothing to do with the manufacture of weapons. Israel said the site was believed to produce mortar shells and rockets like ones used in recent attacks on nearby Israeli communities.
The Israeli invasion of Nablus was triggered by a Sunday shooting at an Israeli communal farm in which five people, including two small boys, were killed by a gunman from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah group. The attacker managed to flee the scene.
Israeli officials identified the gunman as Sirhan Sirhan, a 19-year-old from the Tulkarem refugee camp. Officials initially said they believed he was a distant relative of the assassin by the same name who killed presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in 1968 — but later withdrew that claim.
Israeli security officials have said the order for the communal farm attack came from militiamen in Nablus.
Arafat denounced the Nablus raid as a "new war crime."
Israel declared Nablus a closed military zone, and soldiers barred journalists from taking pictures or talking to those seized.
"This operation will continue as long as we believe that it is valuable in damaging the terror infrastructure," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said. "We are not limited in time, we are not limited in the type of operation."
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in a television interview Wednesday that Israel's security chiefs have advised him not to expel Arafat, as demanded by several hard-line ministers in his Cabinet. But he also said the debate would continue.
Sharon also predicted that a Palestinian state will be created after the current round of Mideast violence ends.
Sharon's comments came after Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged for the second time in two days that Arafat be expelled. Sharon has sought to diminish Arafat's powers and the government has long since halted direct dealings with the Palestinian leader.
In a speech Tuesday night, Netanyahu said if he becomes prime minister in January elections, his first move would be to expel Arafat.
Meanwhile, in Cairo, Egypt, a meeting between Hamas and Arafat's Fatah faction ended Wednesday with no agreement on abandoning Hamas's homicide bombings in Israel, but an Egyptian mediator said the two sides would keep talking.
The Palestinian Authority, dominated by Fatah, has called for an end to homicide bombings but Hamas has resisted, arguing that Palestinians have no other effective means against the better equipped Israeli army.