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MID: Fierce Israel-Hamas firefights in Gaza capital

By Adel Zaanoun
06 Jan 2009 1:27 PM

GAZA CITY, Jan 6 AFP - Israeli troops and Hamas militants fought their first major battles in Gaza City on Monday after tanks and helicopters launched a night-time offensive, with three Israelis killed by "friendly" fire.

Explosions and heavy machine-gun fire rocked the Shejaiya district of the city in the heaviest fighting yet of Israel's campaign to halt militant rocket attacks.

The army said three soldiers from the elite Golani Brigade were killed and 24 wounded in northern Gaza when their position was accidentally hit by Israeli tank fire. The brigade commander, Colonel Avi Peled, was lightly injured.

The Israeli military would not say exactly where the incident occurred, but an AFP correspondent quoted witnesses as saying it was in Shejaiya.

The Islamists say they have killed several Israeli soldiers.

Flares lit up the skies over Shejaiya as helicopters gunships targeted dozens of Hamas fighters with heavy machine guns, residents said.

All of Gaza City and the rest of the northern Gaza Strip was without electricity, the AFP correspondent said.

An Islamic Jihad spokesman said clashes also erupted in the nearby Zeitun district.

Hamas said its fighters had fired missiles at seven tanks there and that 10 Israeli soldiers were killed.

An army spokesman said the toll claim was "just a rumour".

Of the fighting in Shejaiya, a Hamas official told AFP: "The resistance drew Israeli forces into a trap and wounded seven. We have left a lot of explosives in their path."

Islamic Jihad spokesman Abu Ahmed said the group had lost one man in the fighting.

"A Jihad unit is taking part in the clashes with Israeli soldiers in eastern Gaza. They attacked the rear lines" of the Israeli forces.

"Communications with our fighters are cut at the moment but it is still going on," he said, adding that one fighter was killed in Shejaiya.

In the Bureij refugee camp, in the centre of the enclave, three people were killed by tank fire, medics said.

Witnesses said tanks continued to fire on the camp into the pre-dawn hours, but there was no indication that troops had entered it.

In the southern town of Rafah, on the Egyptian border, witnesses said an elderly woman was killed by an Israeli air strike.

Israeli artillery pounded Palestinian positions in Shejaiya and Zeitun before the attacks there started, and an army source said the combat was very fierce.

Hamas said on Monday it had thousands of fighters waiting in Gaza for the Israelis.

Israel launched an air offensive on Gaza on December 27 aimed at halting militant rocket and mortar attacks across the border. On Saturday, it sent in thousands of soldiers to step up the campaign.

"We have prepared thousands of brave fighters who are waiting for you in each corner of the street and will welcome you with fire and iron," Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas armed wing the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, said in a broadcast.

"We tell you in all confidence that your defeat in the Gaza Strip is approaching with every hour," he said. "As long as the aggression intensifies, your losses will increase and you will sink further into the Gaza quagmire.

"God willing, we are at the gates of victory and the Zionist Jews will suffer only defeat and humiliation. The Qassams still have many means and have up to now used only a part of their forces," Abu Obeida said.

At least 555 people have been killed in Gaza since December 27 and another 2,700 wounded.

Of at least 60 Palestinians who died on Monday, 13 were children.

Israel claims to have killed dozens of Hamas fighters, but this has not been independently confirmed.

With its latest fatalities, Israel has lost four soldiers in the fighting since Saturday.

Another four people, including a soldier, were killed in Hamas rocket attacks on Israel after the air war started and before the ground offensive began.