GAZA CITY – An Israeli air strike has killed two Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip, bringing the death toll in the occupied territories to 11 since Wednesday.
The Israeli army claimed that it has targeted rocket-launching cell in Beit Hanoun about to fire into Israel. According to Israeli reports, the country has been hit by 11 rockets in 24 hours but without causing any casualties.
Nine other Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in two other incidents, it was reported. The BBC calls it the “bloodiest period since Israel declared Gaza a ‘hostile’ territory.”
The attacks against Gaza began a few hours after Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak threatened that a major onslaught was in the offing.
Those confirmed dead included two civilians and one fighters from the Popular Resistance Committees who were killed by Israeli tank fire during a ground incursion on the outskirts of Beit Hanun town in northern Gaza, medical sources told Agence France-Presse (AFP). Nine Palestinians were wounded in the ground raid.
Armored vehicles supported by helicopters carried out the operation which an Israeli army spokeswoman said was a "routine" incursion aimed at locating rockets and explosive devices.
The ground operation came shortly after four Palestinian fighters were killed by an Israeli air raid on the heart of Gaza City.
The ‘Army of Islam’ militants were driving through the busy Zaitun neighborhood when their car was hit by an Israeli missile, witnesses and security sources said.
Four passers-by were also wounded in the strike, including one in life-threatening condition, medical sources said.
One of the Army of Islam militants was identified as the group’s spokesman and senior leader Ahmad al-Madhum, also known as Khatab al-Maqdisi.
Earlier, a Palestinian child thought to be around 12 years old was wounded in an Israeli strike on northern Gaza, witnesses said.
The deaths brought to 5,876 the number of people killed since the start of Al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, the vast majority of them Palestinians, according to an AFP tally.
Barak said earlier Wednesday that Israel was getting ready to launch a major operation in the Gaza Strip, one of the world’s most densely-populated places.
"We have to weaken the Hamas regime and its grip on Gaza," the former premier told army radio.
"This operation will not be simple, both because of the forces that will have to be involved and the time limit that will be imposed on them."
Israel has been unable to stamp out rocket fire from Hamas-led Gaza despite launching regular operations in the territory.
A major Israeli operation launched in Gaza last year after an Israeli soldier was taken prisoner by Palestinian resistance groups lasted five months.
Hundreds of Palestinians were killed.
The security developments came as the impoverished Gaza Strip was on the verge of being economically paralyzed after Bank Hapoalim, Israel’s largest private bank, severed ties with the territory.
"Such a decision would pose an enormous problem for us as we will no longer be able to transfer funds to Gaza," Minister for Prisoners, Sports and Youth Ashraf al-Ajrami told AFP.
"It will be very difficult to pay salaries of public servants, as only Israel is able to transfer shekels," the Israeli currency that is used in the Palestinian territories.
Ajrami warned that the move would heap further suffering on Gaza’s 1.5 million residents.
Bank Hapoalim announced that it was severing all ties with banks in Gaza following Israel’s decision to brand the territory a "hostile entity," a label blasted by both the UN and international rights groups.
Although Hapoalim does little business with Gaza banks, it is feared that its decision might spur other Israeli banks to follow suit.
A spokeswoman for another leading bank, Discount, told AFP that it was weighing a similar move.
Jacques Bendelac, an Israeli expert specializing in the Palestinian territories, said "if Bank Hapoalim serves as an example, it will mean an economic paralysis for the Gaza Strip, as this will prohibit exchanges between banks."
Although Israel withdrew settlers and troops from Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, much of the territory’s economy still depends on Israel.
Israel provides the territory with all its water, fuel and vast majority of electricity.
Most goods enter Gaza through Israeli border crossings and Israeli banks are the ones providing the territory with its currency.
Gaza has been reeling from a US-spearheaded international aid freeze and Israeli military operations since Hamas was voted to power in March 2006.
(PalestineChronicle.com, BBC, IslamOnline and Agencies; Sep 27, 2007)