BALATA REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank (AP)- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and incoming Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh denounced a five-day Israeli sweep through a West Bank refugee camp in which five Palestinians were killed.
The sweep in the Balata camp next to the city of Nablus was Israel’s largest West Bank military operation since its summer pullout from the Gaza Strip. One of the dead was a top militant who said a day earlier he would never be caught.
Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, condemned the operation and warned it would endanger a cease-fire that has been in effect for a year, according to the Palestinian WAFA news agency.
Before daybreak Friday, soldiers opened fire on three Palestinians trying to infiltrate into Israel from Gaza, the military said. Two were killed and one was wounded, Palestinian hospital officials said. The army said the Palestinians were planting bombs along the border. One of those killed was the son of Hamas lawmaker Abdel Fattah Dukhan.
Later Friday, Israel’s air force fired a missile at a car in northern Gaza. The army said militants in the car had been firing rockets at Israeli targets. Explosives in the car appeared to have caused a larger explosion than expected, the army said. Palestinians said two people were wounded in the attack.
Also Friday, a Hamas militant was killed in Gaza while improperly handling explosives. Hamas identified the man as Abed Moati Abu Daf, 28, “the most prominent trainer” of militants in Gaza, and said he died on a “training mission.”
In Gaza City on Thursday evening, Hamas backers marched toward the Palestinian parliament building to protest the Israeli operation in Nablus. Addressing the rally, the incoming prime minister Haniyeh denounced the “aggression committed against our people” and expressed solidarity with the Palestinians resisting the Israeli military in the refugee camp. He said Hamas has a two-pronged program for the people: “One hand resists and the other hand builds.”
On Tuesday, Abbas officially appointed Haniyeh to form the new government after the militant Islamic group Hamas swept parliamentary elections last month. Haniyeh wants Abbas’ vanquished Fatah movement to join the government, but Fatah leaders are opposed. Haniyeh has five weeks to present a government.
Since Hamas won a clear majority in the parliament, it could rule by itself, but Haniyeh wants partners to help deflect world criticism of his violent Islamic movement.
Campaigning ahead of March 28 elections for the Israeli parliament, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert defended the raid as part of his government’s struggle against terrorism. “This will continue in every place … with full force,” he told a rally in the town of Upper Nazareth.
Speaking to a crowd of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, a crucial constituency, Olmert pledged to address security issues and also pursue peace. “We will not lose hope” of forging a peace agreement with the Palestinians, “but not at the expense of Israel’s security.”
Since the Balata sweep began Sunday, eight Palestinians have been killed by army fire, including the five shot dead Thursday. More than 50 Palestinians have been injured by live rounds and rubber-coated steel pellets, Palestinian hospital officials said. The military said 15 fugitives have been arrested.
One of those killed Thursday was identified as Mohammed Shtawi, a top member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent offshoot of Abbas’ Fatah Party.
On Wednesday, Shtawi told an AP reporter that earlier in the day soldiers surrounded his hideout for five hours, but he and several friends slipped away. “They will never catch me,” he said at the time,
Israeli forces have been carrying out nightly arrest raid in the West Bank, rounding up suspected militants, but the incursion into the Balata camp is the largest and longest since the summer pullout from Gaza and part of the West Bank. Dozens of army vehicles and hundreds of soldiers are involved.
Israeli security officials have been warning that with the pullout, Palestinian militants would switch their operations to the West Bank. Nablus has been a focus of attention for months, with soldiers keeping a tight grip on the city, which is encircled by roadblocks.
The Israeli military said troops entered Balata after receiving warnings that Al Aqsa and two other militant groups in and around Nablus were planning attacks against Israelis. Before the raid, soldiers in the Nablus area seized four bomb belts, said Maj. Sharon Assman, an army officer in the area. Such belts are used in suicide bombings.
Israeli forces sealed off the refugee camp of 18,000 people from adjacent Nablus. Balata is a stronghold of the Al Aqsa group.
Al Aqsa fugitives have been moving from hideout to hideout since the army raid began.