Israeli troops raided the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip early Thursday, killing three Palestinians including a young boy. Israel says it launched the raid to stop Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel.

Palestinian officials say a 12-year-old boy and two gunmen were killed in exchanges of gunfire during the Israeli army raid into Beit Hanoun.

Palestinian doctors claim the boy, who had a head wound, was left bleeding for three hours because Israeli forces prevented paramedics from reaching the scene.

The doctors say the boy was eventually carried away in an ambulance but died on route to a nearby hospital.

The Israeli army said it was not aware of the circumstances of the boy's death. The local army commander, Col. Yoel Strik, says soldiers have not provided any report that matches the claims of the Palestinian doctors.

The colonel was speaking after one of the largest Israeli military operations in recent months, in which dozens of tanks entered Beit Hanoun. The aim of the raid was to prevent rocket attacks against Israel.

Palestinian militants frequently use the area to fire homemade Kassam rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, less than one kilometer away from the fence dividing Gaza and Israel.

The raid came as Palestinians engaged in annual protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to mark the founding of Israel in 1948, what they call al-Naqba or the catastrophe.

The operation also came just two days before Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, is expected to meet his new Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.

The talks were arranged following the visit of Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who is urging the two sides to adopt the international road-map peace plan.

The plan calls for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005.

It is sponsored by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.