Palestinian girl killed in heavy Gaza clashes

Eds: AMs.

AP Photo JRL107, AKCF103, AKCF101, AKCF102

By IBRAHIM BARZAK

Associated Press Writer

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Israeli forces grabbed a Hamas field commander from his Gaza home Saturday, setting off heavy fighting that killed the wanted man's 14-year-old daughter and wounded 10 Palestinians, including seven gunmen.

The battle in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya pitted Israeli helicopter gunships and tanks against Hamas men with mortars, homemade bombs and automatic rifles.

The fighting illustrated that Egypt's latest attempt to broker a truce between Hamas and Israel remains a long shot at best. Hamas has offered to hold its fire for six months, provided Israel ends its nearly yearlong blockade of Gaza, but Israeli officials have been cool to the idea.

Damascus-based Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal said Saturday that acceptance of a cease-fire would be merely a "tactic" in the group's struggle with the Jewish state.

The target of Saturday's arrest raid was Talat Hassan Marouf, a Hamas field commander in northern Gaza. Hamas did not provide details about Marouf, but as a field commander in the border area with Israel he would presumably be involved in firing rockets at Israeli border communities.

The Israeli military did not publish his name, saying only that troops had seized a wanted militant.

At some point, Israeli forces surrounded Marouf's house, with the family inside, and heavy fighting erupted. The military said troops came under fire from inside the house.

Marouf's 14-year-old daughter Mariam was killed by shrapnel from machine gun fire, said medics at an area hospital, Al Awda. Her mother was injured, along with nine others, seven of them gunmen, said Dr. Moawiya Hassanain, a senior Palestinian Health Ministry official.

Three of the gunmen were in critical condition, Hassanain said.

An army official said the family asked at one point to be evacuated and was eventually permitted to do. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with army regulations, couldn't say if this was before or after the girl was killed. The wanted Hamas member then turned himself in, the army official said.

However, a Hamas spokesman, Abdel Latif al-Qanou, said the army prevented ambulances from reaching the house to evacuate the wounded daughter and wife and claimed this led to the girl's death.

Marouf's house was damaged in the fighting, but not destroyed, as al-Qanou initially said.

During the fighting, the sound of explosions could be heard across northern Gaza.

The raid had begun before dawn Saturday, with Israel undercover force entering Beit Lahiya. Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants fired at the force, using machine guns, mortars and homemade bombs, said Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the Hamas military wing.

The military said a dozen of Israeli tanks and aircraft provided cover during the clashes. The aircraft launched two missile strikes against the militants.

Israel is to respond in coming days to Hamas' proposal of a truce, which would include a prisoner swap and the opening of Gaza border crossings; the territory has been virtually sealed by Israel and Egypt since the violent Hamas takeover last June.

Hamas' Gaza strongman, Mahmoud Zahar, said that if Israel rejects the deal, "all options are open." He made the implied threat of more violence in a televised statement Friday, after he returned from talks with Egyptian officials in Cairo.

The military has said it would continue pursuing Hamas militants as long as they threaten Israeli civilians. Hamas and other militant groups have fired hundreds of rockets at Israeli border towns in recent years.