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Israeli airstrikes target Islamic Jihad leader

Explosions light up the sky in Gaza Friday night.
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CNN's John Vause reports that Gaza violence has escalated due to new tactics being adopted by Palestinian militants.
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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- An Israeli Apache helicopter fired at least six missiles at the office of Islamic Jihad leader Mohammed al-Hindi in Gaza City early Saturday, witnesses said.

It was the latest incident in a wave of violence that has swept Gaza since Friday.

Officials of the militant group say al-Hindi was not harmed. They did not say whether he was in the building at the time of the attack.

Nearby, Israeli forces mounted a targeted strike on El-Anzar, Islamic Jihad's social services agency, the Israel Defense Forces said. The building sustained heavy damage.

Hospital sources say at least 15 people were wounded, but there was no confirmation of their conditions.

In a statement, the IDF said the structures were targeted because they are "used as main focal points for terrorist activity." It said the El-Anzar association is a "guise for locating, recruiting and activating terrorist factors."

Friday, two Israeli soldiers were killed in the town of Rafah and two others were "moderately injured," the IDF said.

Hamas claimed responsibility in a phone call to CNN.

Earlier, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility for the two deaths, distributing pamphlets in Gaza saying its members had bombed an Israeli jeep.

A spokesman for settlers in the area said there was a bombing which wounded four Israeli soldiers. However, the IDF had no word of such a bombing, and both Palestinian and Israeli military witnesses said the soldiers were killed by Palestinian gunmen.

Both Hamas and Al Aqsa, an offshoot of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, are considered terrorist groups by Israel and the United States.

After the attack on the soldiers, Palestinian officials said, Israeli helicopters opened fire on targets in Gaza, killing a 19-year-old Palestinian and wounding eight other people. Israeli military officials had no word on that report.

The fighting came as Israeli soldiers carried out a mission to recover the remains of soldiers killed in an attack Wednesday. The Israeli military was also demolishing buildings in the area.

Israel said the buildings were uninhabited but used by Palestinian militants to launch attacks against soldiers and to dig tunnels under the border to Egypt.

"There is a process here in which the houses in the frontline are deserted and used for tunnel digging and shooting," said Israel Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon. "Therefore we have to demolish houses here, and we will probably need to demolish more in the future."

Palestinian officials have long accused Israel of destroying homes in violation of international law.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat denounced the move as a direct contradiction to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan -- supported by the U.S. -- which calls for the removal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

"This will bring catastrophe to hundreds of Palestinians," Erakat said. "I hope that President Bush, who was encouraged by Sharon's disengagement plan, will see how the plan to widen the Philadelphi corridor will negatively affect the lives of Palestinians and put an end to it. Sharon -- instead of disengaging -- is re-engaging."

Video from the scene Friday showed people carrying out what appeared to be their belongings. A woman waved a white flag as bulldozers approached.

Fighting in the Philadelphi corridor

According to the statement, the two Israeli soldiers died during an operation in the Philadelphi corridor, between the Rafah refugee camp and Egypt's border with Gaza.

According to the IDF, the Philadelphi corridor is the site of weapons' smuggling carried out by Palestinian militants through tunnels "dug underneath the international border between Israel and Egypt."

The statement said the soldiers were killed after "an IDF force positioned itself in a Palestinian house" in the area.

A soldier noticed an elderly Palestinian woman "carrying heavy baggage and attempting to enter the premise," and approached her to assist, the statement said.

"He was targeted by Palestinian fire and killed. During the attempted rescue of the soldier, fire was opened once more targeting the soldiers. As a result of this fire an additional soldier was killed and two others were moderately wounded."

Video later showed helicopters overhead and puffs of smoke as missiles were fired. Several people were shown being carried on stretchers into a hospital.

At a rally in Gaza before Hamas' claim of responsibility, Hamas leader Nizar Rayan said, "We say to the fighters in Rafah and elsewhere in Palestine: 'Carry on the struggle; destroy their tanks and scatter their body parts everywhere until they leave us alone.' We are fighting and resisting an occupation."

This week, violence in Gaza has claimed the lives of at least 32 Palestinians and 11 Israeli military personnel, not counting Friday's casualties:

  • Thursday -- Two Israeli helicopter attacks in Gaza's Rafah refugee camp killed 10 people, Palestinian security and medical sources said. Later in the day, an Israeli Apache helicopter opened machine-gun fire over the camp, but there were no immediate reports of casualties. Israel Defense Forces said they were firing at militants in a rural area.
  • Wednesday -- An Israeli missile strike in Rafah killed seven Palestinians, Palestinian medical sources told CNN. Earlier, five Israeli military personnel were killed in an attack on an Israeli convoy near Rafah, according to Israel Defense Forces. Seven Palestinians died in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City.
  • Tuesday -- Six Israeli soldiers participating in a mission to destroy suspected explosives workshops were killed when their armored personnel carrier ran over an explosive device in Zeitoun. Their bodies were turned over to the Israelis early Thursday, after a deal was reached between Palestinian militant groups and Israel. Also Tuesday, eight Palestinians were killed in Zeitoun violence.
  • CNN's Riad Al, Talal Aburahman, Matthew Chance and Shira Medding contributed to this report.

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