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Police Slaying by Hamas Causes Deadly Street Fighting in Gaza

By Barbara Demick
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- KISSUFIM CROSSING, Gaza Strip

Islamic militants kidnapped and killed a Palestinian police official in Gaza on Monday, prompting some of the worst street fighting among Palestinians since the start of the uprising against Israel two years ago.

By nightfall, five Palestinians, including the colonel, had been killed in the fighting between Palestinian police and members of the radical Hamas movement. Combined with a predawn raid by the Israeli army against Hamas in which 14 Palestinians were killed, it made for one of the deadliest and most chaotic days in the Gaza Strip in months.

The Israeli raid, in which the army fired machine guns on a hospital and used a combat helicopter to fire into a Palestinian crowd, drew widespread criticism from the diplomatic community.

The surge in violence could be a harbinger of rising tensions as the United States prepares a military campaign against Iraq. It also came on the one-year anniversary of an anti-American rally in Gaza City at which two Islamic militants were killed in a clash with Palestinian police.

The Palestinian colonel who was killed Monday, Rajeh Abu Lehiya, had been head of the riot police, and his slaying was apparently revenge exacted by Hamas-affiliated family members of one of the victims from last year. The Hamas denied Monday any involvement in the killing of the colonel, saying it was a matter of “family revenge.”

Palestinians claim that most of the 14 people killed during the raid, which began at 2:30 a.m., were unarmed civilians. The Palestinians said that many people came out of their houses after they believed the raid was finished simply to inspect the damage, and that they were fired on by the combat helicopter. The Israeli army denied that, saying that the crowd was armed and was trying to prevent the army’s retreat.

There were no Israeli casualties during the raid.