Israeli troops push deep into Gaza City

J By Laura King

jERUSALEM, Nov. 14 – Israeli troops and armor pushed into Gaza City before dawn today in the deepest such incursion into the heart of the crowded seaside metropolis since the outbreak of fighting more than two years ago.

The troops, firing machine guns and backed by circling helicopters, came close to the home of Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Palestinian witnesses and officials reported. The slum neighborhood, called Sabra, is home to many other top Hamas leaders as well.

Palestinians said two people were hurt in the two-hour operation. The army did not report any casualties. An officer in the Palestinian preventive security service and three of his brothers were arrested, their family reported.

Israeli troops have been carrying out intensive house-to-house searches for suspected militants in the northern West Bank cities of Nablus and Tulkarm, but operations of this scale and nature have been rare in the Gaza Strip.

Airstrikes have been much more common; Israeli helicopters on the previous two nights had rocketed industrial workshops that Israel said were being used to manufacture weapons.

On Wednesday, there was renewed, sharp debate in Israel’s Cabinet over the question of expelling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

At a Wednesday night meeting, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both new to their posts, again urged sending Arafat into exile. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has promised the United States he will not harm the Palestinian leader, resisted.