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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 19 February, 2003, 11:43 GMT
Eyewitnesses speak of Gaza battles
Palestinians inspect a destroyed building in eastern Gaza City
Explosions rocked the city
Palestinians in Gaza have spoken of fierce fighting between Israeli troops and armed militants, after Israel launched a major incursion into Gaza City overnight.

Explosions rocked the city, shaking homes and blowing out windows.

Witnesses said an Islamic militant shouting "Allahu Akhbar" (God is great) ran at a tank and blew up after being hit by Israeli gunfire.

The radical Palestinian group Hamas said the man was a suicide bomber, but the Israeli army said the man probably died when a shoulder-launched missile he was aiming at the tank blew up.

Resident Iman Shamali said her house "shook like an earthquake" when the blast hit the tank.

"Bullets are coming from all directions," she said during the battle. "It's a real war here."

We prefer to die with honour, clutching a rifle
Palestinian militant

Palestinian fighters clad in balaclavas and camouflage fatigues poured onto the streets as up to 40 tanks rolled into the neighbourhoods of Tufah and Shajaiyeh - bastions of Islamic militants.

"We prefer to die with honour, clutching a rifle, to awaiting death at home," an armed Palestinian said.

"If death is inevitable, I prefer to choose how to die."

Attack helicopters hovered overhead as explosions rang out across the city.

Crumpled ruins

As gun battles raged, the city was plunged into darkness when the Israeli army cut its electricity supplies.

Six hours after the raid began, Israeli forces withdrew, leaving Palestinians to pick through rubble and wreckage.

The BBC's James Rodgers, who is in Gaza, said a three-storey building was left standing unsteadily as a crumpled ruin.

Its ground floor was a metal workshop which the Israelis allege was making mortar shells and rockets for armed Palestinian groups.

A school across the road had its windows blown out when Israel dynamited the foundry.

The BBC's James Rodgers in Gaza City
"This sort of operation will play very well with Israeli public opinion"

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