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Israel expresses sorrow for 4 deaths in Gaza

Palestinian official condemns 'brutal crime'

A wounded boy is treated by doctors after Thursday's Israeli shelling in Gaza.  

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel issued a statement Thursday admitting its forces killed innocent civilians in Gaza, and a top Palestinian official demanded Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer "bring justice to those officers who did this."

Four Palestinians -- including a mother and two of her sons -- died early Thursday morning when an Israeli tank round struck their home, Palestinian sources said. Eight other people were wounded.

Ben-Eliezer "expressed sorrow for the incident in which innocent civilians were killed as a result of IDF fire," according to the statement. He asked the army to conduct an inquiry.

According to Palestinian sources, two Israeli tanks entered Palestinian territory near the settlement of Netzarim and began firing. The tanks later withdrew and ambulances were able to get to the wounded.

The victims were identified as Rawaida Hajien, 50; her sons Ashraf, 23, and Mehad, 17; and a cousin, Mohammed, 20.

"What can I say? It is a massacre. They finished my family," Hajien's distraught husband, Othman, told Reuters.

An IDF spokesman said troops fired after seeing figures crawling toward the settlement.

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"The soldiers fired tank shells toward the figures, who were moving in an open area toward the settlement and were not in a house," the spokesman said.

He said an IDF commander recently warned residents of the danger of moving in the area at night because it had been the site of many attacks and attempted infiltrations.

Gunfire and arrests

In a separate Gaza incident Thursday night, Palestinian medical sources said a 12-year-old boy was killed and eight other people injured, two seriously, when Israeli forces made an incursion near the Rafah refugee camp.

The IDF characterized the incident as an exchange of gunfire after Israeli troops destroyed a tunnel near Rafah that was being used for smuggling.

Meanwhile, the IDF said late Thursday that 23 suspected Palestinian militants have been arrested by its troops over the past 24 hours for alleged terrorist activities.

Eleven of the arrests took place overnight Wednesday into Thursday in Nablus, Tulkarem, Daharia and near Ramallah, the IDF said. The other suspects were rounded up during the day Thursday in Gaza, Tulkarem, Daharia, Nablus and near Hebron and Dura.

One of those arrested, the IDF said, was a senior leader of Tanzim, a faction of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement that Israeli says is responsible for terrorist attacks and the planting of explosive devices in the Hebron area.

'Nothing justifies such crimes'

After the incident near the settlement of Netzarim, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat issued a statement saying he holds "the Israeli government fully responsible for this brutal crime" and urged Ben-Eliezer to take action against those responsible.

"Nothing justifies such crimes," Erakat said.

The area where the shelling happened is in the same vicinity where Israeli forces carried out an operation Wednesday in which naval ships aided by tanks fired toward southern Gaza City to stop suspected arms smuggling.

Palestinian police returned Wednesday to three checkpoints in Gaza the Israeli military had controlled in recent months, Palestinian sources said.

Their return is part of an agreement for Palestinian security forces to resume control of parts of Gaza and Bethlehem on the condition that violence decreases in areas where Israeli troops have pulled back.

The Israeli military had taken control of the three checkpoints -- at Beit Lahaya, Beit Hanun and Khan Yunis -- to reduce the movements of Palestinian militants who might launch attacks inside Israel.




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