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MID: Major Israel-Hamas clashes in Gaza capital

By Adel Zanoun
06 Jan 2009 8:24 AM

GAZA CITY, Jan 5 AFP - Israeli troops and Hamas militants fought their first major battles in Gaza City on Monday with tanks and assault helicopters launching a night-time offensive.

Residents reported explosions and heavy machine gun fire rocking the Shejaiya neighbourhood of the enclave's capital in the heaviest fighting yet of Israel's campaign to halt Hamas rocket attacks.

Hamas said in a statement that its fighters had fired missiles at seven tanks in the same district and that 10 Israeli soldiers were killed.

The Israeli army did not comment on the claim though it confirmed there was heavy fighting.

The Islamic Jihad movement said at least one of its members was killed in the fighting.

Flares lit up the skies over the blacked-out neighbourhood as assault helicopters buzzed overhead firing heavy machine guns at dozens of fighters for the Hamas military wing, residents said.

There were also clashes in the nearby Zeitoun district, an Islamic Jihad spokesman said.

Israeli artillery had launched an artillery barrage on Palestinian positions in the two sectors before the attacks started.

An Israeli military source said that the combat in Shejaiya and Zeitoun was fierce.

"The fighting is very intense at Shejaiya," a Hamas official said on condition of anonymity.

"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 taken part 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 Islamic Jihad fighter was killed in Shejaiya.

Hamas said earlier on Monday that it had thousands of fighters waiting in Gaza for the Israeli army.

Israel launched an air offensive on Gaza on December 27 aiming to halt Hamas rocket attacks across their border.

On Saturday, thousands of soldiers moved in 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 the armed wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, said in a broadcast on Hamas television.

"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," he said.