GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli tanks and soldiers battled Palestinian militants in the streets of Gaza City before dawn Wednesday in violence that left 11 Palestinians dead, including a suicide bomber who tried to blow up a tank, Palestinians said.
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The Israeli forces said they were targeting Palestinian metal workshops that manufacture mortars and rockets. However, Israeli troops also destroyed several homes and damaged a school.
Twenty-five Palestinians were wounded, and electricity was cut to much of Gaza City, the largest Palestinian city with some 300,000 residents.
The fighting began as 40 tanks charged into the city's Shajaiyeh neighborhood late Tuesday. The forces withdrew six hours later.
Army spokeswoman Capt. Sharon Feingold called it a "pre-emptive, pinpoint, targeted operation against a Hamas stronghold."
Hamas' spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, said "the Israeli enemy has lost its mind. They are like an angry bull ... We have to make (Israel) pay the price sooner or later, and our people are capable of resisting."
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In the more than two years of Mideast fighting, Israel has largely refrained from large-scale military incursions in Gaza. The crowded towns make it difficult and dangerous for Israeli troops to operate. In addition, the territory is fenced off from Israel, which keeps the militants pinned in, and has largely limited their attacks to Israeli troops and Jewish settlers already inside Gaza.
However, Israeli leaders promised a crackdown on Hamas after the group blew up an Israeli tank on Saturday, killing four soldiers. The raid was the second in Gaza City since that attack, and the third in the past month.
The Israeli media have predicted the army will carry out a series of operations aimed at Hamas, though it is not expected to reoccupy the coastal territory, where more than 1 million Palestinians and about 7,000 Jewish settlers live.
Seven of the Palestinians killed in the overnight fighting were militants or members of the security forces, and four were civilians, according to Palestinian hospitals. It was the highest death toll in a single Israeli operation since Jan. 26, when 12 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli invasion in another part of Gaza City.
In addition, 25 Palestinians were wounded, all but two of them militants or security force members. the hospitals said.
The Israeli army said it targeted only armed Palestinians, and that it had no information on Palestinian casualties.
The Israeli tanks, accompanied by attack helicopters, entered the Shajaiyeh neighborhood late Tuesday from three directions, residents said, and several tanks also surrounded an elementary school run by Hamas in the nearby Tufah area.
The Israeli military said soldiers blew up four metal workshops used for manufacturing weapons and exchanged fire with gunmen, and there were no Israeli casualties.
In one instance, three civilians, including two brothers were killed. After the Israelis blew up a workshop on the ground floor of a three-story building, the troops left and the three Palestinian men entered, Palestinian witnesses said. Then came a second explosion, which brought down much of the building, crushing the three men to death, including brothers Said al-Helo, 21, and Ala al-Helo, 26, according to the building's owner Mohammed al-Kataa.
Another civilian, a nurse, was shot and killed when he left his house to help his sick neighbor, Palestinians said.
The Palestinian dead also included three security officers, shot by an Israeli attack helicopter that fired on a checkpoint they were manning, Palestinians said.
Israel says many Palestinian metal workshops in Gaza produce the mortars and rockets that Hamas fires at Jewish settlements and Israeli villages just beyond the border fence. Palestinians say most of the workshops destroyed by Israeli forces are ordinary businesses that aren't involved in the conflict.
Israeli Col. Imad Faras, commander of the infantry, said the operation showed Israel was willing to go after Hamas targets inside Gaza City. "This was a deeper operation, ... in a place they thought, they believed, that we would not be able to get to," Faras told Israel television.
Palestinian witnesses said an explosion set one of the Israeli tanks on fire late Tuesday night. Hamas claimed responsibility, saying one of its suicide bombers, Karim Batron, 21, blew up the tank. The Israeli military said it knew nothing of the incident.
Iman Shamali, 39, said her house "shook like an earthquake" from the force of the blast, and she saw the tank burning outside. "Bullets are coming from all directions," she said.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank, a 32-year-old Palestinian baker was killed on his way to work as Israeli troops carried out house-to-house searches in the narrow confines of Nablus' Old City, Palestinian security officials said. The soldiers took over two schools, bringing detainees to the sites for questioning, Palestinian witnesses said. The Israeli army did not immediately comment.