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Five Killed in Gaza Territory As Ethnic Conflict Escalates

By Lee Hockstader

Nestled among greenhouses and sand dunes, this sunbaked speck of a Jewish settlement near the Egyptian border has escaped most of the recent fighting between Israelis and Palestinians. So when a pair of Palestinian commandos slipped in before dawn Saturday, the small contingent of Israeli soldiers assigned to guard the place was caught sleeping and unaware.

In the firefight that ensued, three Israeli soldiers died and seven were injured before troops managed to kill the two Palestinians. It was the most daring and deadly attack by armed Palestinian militants against Israeli soldiers in 11 months of fighting in the Middle East, and Israeli army officials called the attack a grave incident. They announced they would launch a full investigation to determine how the Palestinians were able to infiltrate a well-fortified outpost surrounded by electronic fencing and equipped with night vision technology.

Israeli tanks and armored vehicles launched a reprisal raid around midnight Saturday night, roaring into the Palestinian town of Rafah on the Gaza-Egyptian border, hometown of both the militants who staged Saturday’s attack. Initial Palestinian reports said the Israeli operation involved 16 tanks entering a half-mile or more into the Palestinian-controlled territory from four directions. Even before the reprisal, Palestinian security officers in Gaza had fled their offices and outposts.

It was unclear how long the Israeli forces would stay in Rafah, but in several recent incursions into other Palestinian-controlled areas, troops and armored vehicles leveled a handful of security structures and left within a few hours.

Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, the Israeli army’s commander for Gaza and southern Israel, called the Palestinians’ raid on Bedolah “a daring operation of a sort we have not seen until now. The results are not what we would have expected from a face-to-face battle.”

Palestinians praised the attack as an act of valor.

“These guys were very brave to get into a Jewish settlement,” said Ali Ekki, 26, a mechanic in Gaza City. “It shows that whatever security measures Israel puts in place, there are Palestinians who can defy them.”

In a separate incident later Saturday, gunmen attacked a car full of Israelis on a road in central Israel, killing two men and a woman and wounding two children -- apparently members of the same family, Israeli television reported. The al-Aqsa Brigades, linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, claimed responsibility, according to the news services.

The tactical success of the raid on Bedolah bore much in common with the attacks launched by Lebanese guerrillas of Hezbollah, the Islamic Party of God.