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Israeli Troops, Palestinian Gunmen Clash in Gaza - 2004-04-15

Israeli troops battled with Palestinian gunmen Thursday in the southern Gaza Strip, just hours after President Bush endorsed a plan for an Israeli withdrawal from the territory. At least 11 Palestinians were reported wounded in the operation that Israel said was aimed at uncovering tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt.

Israeli forces swept into the southern Gaza town of Rafah on the border with Egypt early Thursday, drawing fierce resistance from Palestinian gunmen.

Israeli officials said the raid was part of ongoing efforts by Israel to uncover and destroy a network of tunnels used to smuggle weapons and explosives into Gaza from Egypt.

Palestinian residents say that during the operation an Israeli helicopter fired a missile toward a group of armed Palestinians.

The latest violence came only hours after President Bush publicly backed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw troops and Jewish settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

At the same time, Mr. Sharon has said Israel would also lay claim to large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank and deny Palestinian refugees the right to return to areas that are now part of the Jewish state.

The Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, believes Mr. Bush has now endorsed these positions and says this is unacceptable.

Mr. Qureia says the Palestinian leadership accepts only United Nations resolutions aimed at resolving the conflict with Israel and the international "road map" peace plan.

"We cannot accept it. We refuse it," he said. "And we are committed only to the international legitimacy, to the international resolution, the (U.N.) Security Council resolution, to the road map."

Mr. Qureia held meetings Thursday with members of his cabinet and the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat.

The talks are meant to devise a strategy in the wake of Wednesday's summit in Washington between Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon, which the Palestinian leadership says could set back efforts to achieve Palestinian statehood.