JERUSALEM – Israeli armored vehicles rolled into the Palestinian parts of the divided West Bank city of Hebron Tuesday, after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended an Israeli raid in Gaza that resulted in the deaths of 16 Palestinians.
The White House criticized Israel over the civilian casualties, saying President Bush was deeply concerned. "The president urges Israel to minimize the risk to civilian populations," said spokesman Ari Fleischer Fleischer.
At the Gaza-Egypt border on Tuesday, a 10-year-old Palestinian girl was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers, residents and doctors said. They said soldiers fired at youths who were throwing rocks at tanks and bulldozers, and the girl was hit near her house. The Israeli military said two soldiers were wounded by Palestinian gunfire but had no information about Palestinian casualties.
Palestinian gunmen fired at an Israeli vehicle near Hebron, wounding four Israelis, one critically. Other attackers shot at one of the Israeli enclaves in the tense city from a Palestinian neighborhood, just before Israeli armored personnel carriers moved in and imposed a curfew, the military and witnesses said.
Hebron is the only West Bank city split into Israeli and Palestinian-controlled zones. About 450 Jewish settlers live in three enclaves in the center of the city. Israeli soldiers patrol the area, which also includes about 30,000 of the 130,000 Palestinians in Hebron.
After the shooting, Jewish settlers scuffled with Palestinians in downtown Hebron and smashed the windows of four Palestinian-owned cars, witnesses said. Such clashes are common in Hebron.
"Settlers are taking any chance to attack Palestinians and take the law into their own hands," said Arif Jaabri, the Palestinian governor of Hebron.
Sharon said Israel would not stop sending its forces into Palestinian areas to confront militants.
He dismissed American and other criticism of a raid Monday in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, in which 16 Palestinians were killed and more than 100 wounded. Sharon expressed regret at civilian deaths, but declared, "There is a need to be certain that terrorist organizations will not have the freedom to carry out intentional murder."
"The operation was a successful operation. ... There will be more operations in Gaza," Sharon said.
The death toll rose to 16 in the raid when two Palestinians, ages 16 and 35, died Tuesday in a Khan Younis hospital, doctors said. Most of the casualties came when an Israeli helicopter fired a missile into a crowded street. Palestinians said most or all of the casualties were civilians. Israel said most were armed fighters who were shooting at the departing soldiers.
Israel said Khan Younis is a stronghold of the violent Islamic Hamas, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings in Israel during two years of fighting.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the raid on Khan Younis was a "massacre and war crime." He said the Palestinian Authority asked the U.N. Security Council to convene immediately.
In clashes between Palestinian police and Hamas supporters in Gaza, a senior police commander and four Hamas backers were killed and dozens of people wounded over the past two days.
Sharon spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said it might be a sign Yasser Arafat's forces are moving to control the militant group. However, he added, "This is only a beginning. It may turn either way." Israel charges Arafat has not taken steps to stop Hamas attacks against Israel.
At the funeral for two of the Hamas supporters Tuesday, dozens among the 1,500 mourners hurled stones and bottles at a police station in Gaza City. Officers posted on the roof fired in the air.