GAZA, (Reuters) – Israeli forces killed five Palestinians in Gaza on Saturday including four militants in air strikes and clashes, rescue workers said, and the army briefly eased its grip on a town at the centre of a major offensive.
One of the gunmen was killed in battles with Israeli soldiers backed by tanks near the northern town of Beit Hanoun, witnesses said. Militants fired anti-tank rockets at troops, they added. One soldier was badly wounded, the military said.
The violence came a day after Israel killed 17 people, about half of them civilians and including two women acting as human shields between troops and gunmen hiding in a mosque in Beit Hanoun. Israel’s army said it only fired at armed Palestinians.
Israel says the operation, one of the biggest since the army and Jewish settlers pulled out of Gaza a year ago after 38 years of occupation, aims to halt rocket fire at the Jewish state.
The violence has scuttled hopes of any resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, already a remote prospect since the Hamas militant group took power in March following elections. Hamas is sworn to Israel’s destruction.
“We cleared the settlements. The army left. The terrorists are just hurting themselves, hurting Gaza and the Palestinians,” Israeli vice premier Shimon Peres said on Israel Radio.
Among the dead on Saturday were two Hamas militants, killed in a missile strike near the Jabalya refugee camp, medical officials said. The army said it was checking the report.
Some 14 Palestinians had been wounded in various strikes and clashes, hospital officials added.
Israeli forces have killed 39 people in the four-day assault, the Palestinian health ministry said.
Beit Hanoun, home to 30,000 Palestinians, has been under an effective curfew since troops moved in, residents say. On Saturday, soldiers using loudspeakers told residents that women had two hours to go out and buy food, witnesses said.
An army spokesman said troops had not seized Beit Hanoun.
“There are warnings and recommendations to stay off the streets, but there is no official lockdown,” he said.
The Beit Hanoun operation is part of a broader offensive launched in late June following the abduction of an Israeli soldier by militants in a cross-border raid from Gaza.
Since the start of that offensive more than 300 Palestinians have been killed, half of them civilians, hospital officials and residents say. Three Israeli soldiers have been killed.
The killing of the two unarmed women in Beit Hanoun was captured by television cameras and broadcast around the world.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate who favours peace negotiations with Israel, condemned the killings and demanded immediate U.N. intervention in the conflict.
More than 50 veiled women, answering an appeal broadcast on local radio, worked their way between Israeli forces and the mosque, eventually allowing around 60 gunmen, who had been holed up inside for more than 15 hours, to escape.
The Israeli army said it was investigating whether it had shot the women, adding that it did not target civilians.
Palestinian militants have fired around 300 homemade missiles at Israel this year from Gaza, Israel says. They mostly cause minor injuries or panic.
In the occupied West Bank, Israeli troops killed a militant leader in Bethlehem, Palestinian security sources said. The army said it killed the man after an exchange of fire.