Female bomber strikes in Gaza

Four Palestinians, including three militants from the armed wing of the ruling Hamas party, were killed by Israeli troops as a fourth Palestinian succumbed to his wounds and the woman staged a suicide bombing.

An Israeli soldier was lightly wounded when 18-year-old Mirvat Massud detonated an explosive belt strapped to her chest as she walked towards troops in the northern town of Beit Hanun, the focus of Israel’s operation.

“A woman came close to our forces and she was carrying an explosive device and she blew herself up,” an army spokeswoman said.

The radical Islamic Jihad, which has been behind all of the most recent bomb attacks against Israeli targets, immediately claimed the attack in which Ms Massud was killed.

Nevertheless Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz vowed that Israel’s Operation Autumn Clouds would continue until its objective to lessen rocket attacks on the Jewish state was met.

“The operation aims to try to reduce rocket fire on Israel,” he said. “We have absolutely no intention of staying there or of getting bogged down there.”

The latest operation, following four months of Israeli activity in Gaza, where more than 300 Palestinians have been killed since a serviceman was captured in late June, has been condemned by the international community.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also expressed concern about the humanitarian situation in the town of Beit Hanun, which has borne the brunt of the assault and which Israel calls a launch pad for rocket attacks.

Three Hamas militants were killed during clashes with Israeli forces or aerial attacks, medics said.

An Israeli army spokesman said forces fired at gunmen not far from the security fence with Israel and that a man with an anti-tank missile was targeted from the air. “We identified hitting him,” the spokesman added.

Fifteen-year-old student Mahmud Ashrafi was killed and nine other
Palestinians, including two children, were wounded when an Israeli aircraft fired a missile on the town of Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, medics said.

Witnesses said the militants, the presumed target of the air strike, escaped unscathed, but that the missile exploded near a bus taking children to school.

Israel launched its latest blitz aiming to stop militants from launching rockets into its territory, but 36 such rockets have struck the Jewish state since last Wednesday, wounding three people.

In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged Palestinians and
Israelis to free prisoners and return to negotiations for a two-state solution, as he called the violence in the Gaza Strip “tragic, terrible”.

The Finnish presidency of the European Union also said it “deplores the growing number of civilian casualties” from the Israeli operation and warned against the “disproportionate use of violence”.

Among the 55 Palestinians killed during the operation over the past six days have been a four year old, a 12 year old, three teenagers, a 70 year old and at least 29 militants. More than 200 Palestinians have been wounded.

Urban Caulori, deputy director of the ICRC in Gaza, speaking about Beit
Hanun, told news agency AFP: “The situation is serious and we are very concerned, but we have not been able to assess the situation because of the fighting going on.”

Troops have been conducting operations inside the Gaza Strip since
20-year-old Corporal Gilad Shalit was captured in a deadly June attack claimed by Gaza-based militants including some from the ruling Hamas.

Palestinian foreign minister Mahmud Zahar, from the Hamas-led government, called on Arab countries whose envoys were due to meet in Cairo later on Monday to act urgently “to put an end to the Israeli aggression”.