By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA, Jan 6 (Reuters) - Israeli troops killed four Palestinians in a raid into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Sunday, witnesses said, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed to step up attacks on militants who fire rockets into Israel.
Palestinian hospital officials said three of the dead in the al-Bureij refugee camp were civilians — a woman, an 18-year-old man and a 16-year-old youth. The fourth was a Hamas gunman killed in battle with the Israelis, the Islamist faction said.
Militants fired an anti-tank rocket, wounding five Israeli soldiers, during the raid which raised tension ahead of U.S. President George W. Bush’s visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank starting on Wednesday.
The fighting, which ended when Israeli forces withdrew at nightfall, also wounded at least 34 Palestinians, including four women, seven children and 15 gunmen.
Olmert told his cabinet that Defence Minister Ehud Barak had ordered security forces "to escalate Israel’s actions" in coastal Gaza after a rocket fired by militants last week reached an unprecedented distance, hitting the Israeli city of Ashkelon.
Israeli ground forces moved into al-Bureij at dawn, according to military and Palestinian officials.
Palestinian hospital staff said the 18-year-old and the other youth were shot dead. The woman died when a tank shell hit the house she was in. Another tank shell killed the gunman.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said troops shot several gunmen. She had no immediate word on the civilian casualties.
Israel has stepped up attacks against militants in Gaza to try to curb cross-border rocket salvoes from the territory.
Earlier this week, Israeli troops raided the West Bank city of Nablus, conducting house-to-house searches and detaining at least 6 Palestinians. The raids triggered clashes with stone- throwing youths that injured at least 29 people.
FAYYAD URGES HALT
The operations have drawn censure from the administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who, after losing control of Gaza to Hamas, formally relaunched peace talks with Olmert at a conference convened by Bush in November.
"We call on Israel to halt its military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," Abbas’s prime minister, Salam Fayyad, told reporters.
The Israeli army said the rocket that hit Ashkelon on Thursday, causing no damage or casualties, travelled 17 km (11 miles), further than any previously launched from Gaza.
The longer-range rocket marked an "escalation" in Palestinian attacks, Olmert said.
He said Israeli military operations had already yielded "very significant results" in Gaza, seized in June by Hamas after routing Abbas’s secular Fatah forces.
Olmert said Israel would continue to operate against militants in the West Bank, where Fatah is dominant.
"We will continue to react and to initiate actions by our forces in order to hit terror elements and to reach those who are responsible in every corner of Gaza and also in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank)," Olmert added.
Bush will visit Israel and the West Bank to spur renewed peace talks between Olmert and Abbas. (Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Atef Sa’ad in Nablus; Writing by Adam Entous and Joseph Nasr; Editing by Sami Aboudi)