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Gaza death toll rises to 16

Fighting fierce as Israelis try to build Gaza buffer

Israeli forces gather before the Gaza offensive.
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Dozens were killed in Gaza as Israeli forces fought militants.
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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli forces have shot and killed four armed Palestinians near a security fence in northern Gaza, according to Israel Defense Forces, bringing the death toll in two days of clashes to 16.

The Palestinians armed with AK-47s fired at Israeli border police and soldiers as they approached Saturday, prompting the Israeli forces to return fire, killing all four, IDF reported.

Israeli forces have launched a wide-scale operation in northern Gaza to create a 9-kilometer (5.5-mile) buffer zone to protect Israel from Palestinian rocket attacks.

The latest violence brings the death toll to 16 Palestinians killed Friday and early Saturday in northern Gaza, according to the IDF report and Palestinian medical sources.

The Israeli military has identified all of the dead Palestinians as militants and gunmen.

Violence in Gaza escalated Wednesday when a Qassam rocket attack killed two Israeli children in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, located less than a mile from the Gaza border.

In response, the Israeli government stepped up military operations, with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz announcing Thursday that Israel would launch a large-scale, open-ended operation -- code named "Days of Penitence" -- in an attempt to stop the rocket attacks.

The range of the crude, home-made Qassam rockets is roughly the width of the buffer zone.

Much of the fighting has raged in Jabalya, Gaza's largest refugee camp, home to more than 100,000 people.

According to sources familiar with the plan, Israeli troops will search for cells launching Qassam rockets, destroy workshops where the rockets are manufactured and demolish houses to eliminate cover for rocket launchers.

The plan calls for Israeli troops to remain in the buffer zone for an extended period. Two Israeli army brigades have deployed inside Gaza with another two poised to go in, military sources said. With the 16 Palestinian deaths Friday and Saturday, 49 Palestinians have been killed since Wednesday. Three Israelis also were killed in Thursday's violence.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "ordered the defense establishment to continue an ongoing operation and to put pressure on those firing Qassam rockets," an Israeli government official said.

"There was an escalation," the official said. "Children are being killed."

"This is not an invasion of Gaza," the official told CNN. "We are in all these places to push them back, and that's what the army is doing. It's called to put pressure on the whole field."

The official said Israel is "not going to reoccupy Gaza. We want to disengage, but we will not disengage under the fire of Qassam rockets. If there is going to be firing, it's going to be on the terrorists."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said, "We believe that there are massacres going on in Gaza now. Northern Gaza is under occupation and we fear that very soon all of Gaza will be reoccupied by the Israeli army.

"And we will see the same atrocities that the Palestinian people suffered during the 2002 massive incursion into the West Bank."

A senior Hamas commander called CNN Thursday afternoon to say his group was ready to stop the Qassam rocket attacks if Israeli troops would pull out of Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahaya and Jabalya.

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