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(photo credit: AP)
IDF troops clashed with Palestinian gunmen on Thursday as tanks, snipers and attack helicopters intensified their efforts to hunt down Kassam rocket squads in the northern Gaza Strip.
Eight Palestinians - including Faik Abu al-Kumsan, head of the Popular Resistance Committees' (PRC) military wing and responsible for overseeing the Kassam firing cells - were killed in the course of the day.
Eight IDF soldiers were also injured, including three who sustained light injuries after a Palestinian female suicide bomber exploded near forces in northern Gaza.
Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing attempt and identified the suicide bomber as Fatma Omar an-Najar, 68. The IDF said soldiers spotted the bomber and threw a stun grenade at her, causing the detonation of the explosives she was carrying.
At the ramshackle compound where the extended family lives, her oldest daughter, Fatheya, 52, explained her motives.
"They [Israelis] destroyed her house, they killed her grandson - my son. Another grandson is in a wheelchair with an amputated leg," she said. "She and I, we went to the mosque. We were looking for martyrdom."
Bringing back images of the recent war in Lebanon, the IDF faced mostly anti-tank missiles, which were fired at armored vehicles and homes that troops used for cover. IDF sources said that in contrast to Hizbullah, the anti-tank missiles in the hands of the Palestinians were outdated and caused less damage than the Russian-made Kornet and Fagot employed by the Lebanese guerrilla group.
Sources in the Southern Command said the operation was planned to continue for several weeks in an effort to destroy terror infrastructure and prevent Kassam rocket fire.
Four soldiers were lightly-to-moderately wounded by anti-tank fire.
One of the soldiers was evacuated to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, while the other was sent to Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon.
Elsewhere in Gaza, three soldiers were lightly wounded during an exchange of fire with Palestinian gunmen.
At night, IAF aircraft fired missiles at a car traveling in Jabalya in the northern Gaza Strip. Al-Kumsan, the PRC military chief and head of the Kassam infrastructure, was killed alongside one of his aides.
Hamas spokesman Abu Obeideh said both Palestinian men and women were committed to battling the Israelis. "We told the Zionist enemy we will meet it with many surprises... and this is one of the surprises, presented by a 68-year-old woman," he said.
At dawn Thursday, a 20-year-old gunman was killed as IDF tanks rumbled up to an apartment complex on the outskirts of Beit Lahiya. Troops fired bursts from turret-mounted machine guns, killing the gunman and wounding another man, before the tanks withdrew. Two known Hamas operatives were also killed in a gun battle with IDF units, and another was shot dead as he was about to fire a rocket into Israel.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), IDF and an Israel Police elite anti-terror unit nabbed four Islamic Jihad terrorists planning to perpetrate suicide bombings in Israel. The four were arrested overnight Wednesday in the village of Kabatiya, south of Jenin. During the operation, gun battles erupted but no soldiers were
AP contributed to the report.