Israeli Troops Kill 12 Palestinians in Central Gaza

Israeli troops killed at least 12 Palestinians, including one policemen and two militants, in four separate incidents Wednesday in the central Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical officials said.

In the first attack, an Israeli tank fired on a car traveling in the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah, killing two passengers and wounding a third. Islamic Jihad identified the two men as militants from the group.

Several hours later, Israeli ground troops opened fire on a group of Palestinians gathered near a flour mill, killing four and wounding several others. The army said troops opened fire on Palestinian gunmen planting explosives on a road used by the army to enter the central Gaza Strip.

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Palestinian medical officials did not release the identities of the four dead Palestinians. They said their bodies were riddled with shrapnel and they appeared to have been killed in an explosion.

In a third incident, Palestinian security officials said an Israeli aircraft fired a missile into a police station in the central Gaza town of Khan Younis, killing one policemen and wounding two others. The army said it was checking the report.

On Wednesday evening, an Israeli airstrike killed five Palestinians, medical officials said. The army said it had targeted a group of gunmen.

Earlier, Israel dropped a quarter-ton bomb on a home Wednesday in an attempt to assassinate top Hamas fugitives. Nine members of a family, including seven children, were killed.

The airstrike, targeting the No. 1 militant on Israel's wanted list, came hours before Hezbollah guerrillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed seven others, opening a second front in Israel's battle against Islamic militants.

After initially claiming that its leaders had escaped harm, Hamas militants took over the intensive care unit of Gaza City's main hospital, where doctors said seven people were in critical condition. The gunmen barred reporters from entering the unit, suggesting that Hamas militants were inside.

The army said Mohammed Deif, the leader of the Hamas military wing and top of Israel's wanted list for more than a decade, was among the wounded. Palestinian security officials said he suffered a serious spinal injury.

Israel has been conducting a large-scale military offensive in Gaza since Hamas militants captured the soldier on June 25. The campaign's declared aim is to force Hamas militants to turn over the soldier and to halt ongoing rocket fire on southern Israel.

More than 60 Palestinians have been killed. Most of the dead have been gunmen, but more than a dozen civilians have also died. One Israeli soldier has been killed.

Wednesday's aerial attack in Gaza City was bound to intensify international criticism of Israel. The United Nations has already complained about what it said was disproportionate use of Israeli force in the Gaza operation.

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Security officials said Israel dropped a 550-pound bomb on the two-story house, which collapsed from the force of the blast, burying people under the rubble. Israeli officials said the attack was aimed at top Hamas militants gathered in the building.

Rescue workers pulled from the rubble the mangled body of a 4-year-old child, clad in a red-T shirt, whose head was blown open by the blast and whose lower body was torn off.

The house belonged to Nabil Abu Salmiyeh, a Hamas activist and lecturer at Gaza City's Islamic University.

Palestinian hospital officials said Abu Salmiyeh, his wife and seven of their nine children were killed, and rescue workers said four people were still missing. The dead children ranged in age from 4 to 18, with the oldest suffering from a physical handicap, medical officials said.

"I heard a really loud explosion and then I felt the ceiling fall on top of me. I was buried under the rubble," said Awad Abu Salmiyeh, 19, who along with an older brother were the only family members to survive. He spoke from the hospital, where he was being treated for internal bleeding.

Hospital officials said 37 people were wounded, three of them seriously.

A key target of the strike was Deif, a master bombmaker, responsible for many homicide attacks against Israelis. The bombing raid on Wednesday was the army's fourth attempt to kill him; in a 2002 missile strike, he lost an eye.

Israeli officials said Hamas militants were meeting in Abu Samiyeh's home and accused the militants of using civilians as a shield.

"Israel is compelled to take action against those planning to unleash lethal terror attacks against Israeli citizens," said David Baker, an official in Olmert's office. "Palestinian terrorist leaders continue to take refuge among and hide behind their own civilians."

After the bombardment, a car that fled the scene was hit by a missile fired from an Israeli aircraft, Palestinian security officials said. Witnesses said top Hamas militants were inside.

Hamas initially said its leaders were safe. But later in the day, Hamas militants took over the intensive care unit at Gaza's Shifa Hospital. Seven people were being treated inside, including four in critical condition, medical officials said.

Black-uniformed Hamas gunmen stood guard at the entrance of the unit. A large bearded man blocked people from entering, permitting only a team of doctors and Hamas lawmakers to pass. He angrily declined to say who was being treated.

Abu Obeideh, spokesman for Hamas' military wing, issued an unusually strong condemnation. "We will make the leaders of the Zionist regime regret this Nazi crime," he said.

He later told The Associated Press that the attack would "change all standards, opening new options that never have been used."

News of the Hezbollah kidnappings was welcomed in Gaza, with militants handing out sweets to pedestrians and motorists to celebrate.

Hamas lawmaker Salah Bardawil said the Hezbollah operation came at a "very appropriate time." He called it a legitimate reprisal for Israel's invasion of Gaza, and said it would help ease the military pressure on the Palestinians. He also said it would help win the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas-led Palestinian government, said there was still hope for a peaceful resolution.

"We have said before that we can solve the captured soldier problem through diplomatic channels, through diplomatic means, but I think Israel did not listen to this and they are prepared to go on a military escalation," he said.

Earlier in the day, Israel sent tanks and troops into southern Gaza, expanding the two-week-old offensive. Backed by tanks, they took control of Gaza's main north-south road, cutting the coastal strip in two.