Israeli offensive pulverizes Gaza City

Palestinians say Sharon was sending message of strength on eve of voting

January 27, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - It was barely 12 hours after the deaths and an angry mob was pressing against the locked door of the morgue. Finally, yesterday morning, the bodies were carried out. Sobbing relatives bore them aloft through Gaza's teeming streets.

At least 12 Palestinians had been killed late Saturday and early yesterday during street-to-street combat with Israeli soldiers backed by tanks and helicopter gunships that moved into the city from three directions. The Israeli army described it as its largest offensive into the Gaza Strip since the Palestinian uprising erupted 28 months ago.

Army commanders said that most if not all of the people killed and wounded in its attack were Palestinian gunmen who mounted fierce resistance. Palestinian officials said only seven of the dead had been armed.

The Israeli army has raided the outskirts of Gaza City many times, but never before had tanks penetrated so far into the sprawling metropolis of 350,000.

Damage was vast. Streets in the Zaitoun neighborhood were lined with stories-high piles of rubble. A sprawling market of 130 stalls on Basateen Street was left a smoldering ruin of metal and charred debris after being ignited by tank shells.

The army knocked down a house occupied by the family of a suicide bomber, blew up 17 metal workshops and destroyed more than 100 lathes that the military said had been used to manufacture rockets and mortars.

Army officials said they moved against Gaza after militants fired a barrage of homemade missiles into Israel on Friday. One of the rockets hit a courtyard of a home in Sderot, in the Negev, gouging a 6-foot-wide crater and shattering windows. Shrapnel hit a day care center filled with children.

"In the last few weeks and over the past weekend we have seen an increase in attempts by terror organizations," Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told state radio yesterday. "We must provide defense for the citizens of Israel."

By 11 a.m. yesterday, only one body was left in Shifa Hospital's morgue, unclaimed and unidentified. A new crowd swarmed inside and headed for the giant steel refrigerator. They yanked open the door, pulled out the stretcher and threw off the rags that covered the young man's head.

"Nobody knows who he is," said Hamdi Hamed, 22, who was trying to keep order.

The man's body was bruised and caked with dirt, and clad in a tattered blue shirt. His arms had been sheared off and there was a baseball-size hole in the center of his face. A piece of paper torn from a notebook had been clipped to his clothing. On it, someone had scrawled "unknown."

"You see, this is Israel's message to us," Hamed said as he peered down at the remains. "This is what they want to do. They don't want peace."

Mofaz raised the possibility that the army could launch a full-scale invasion against the Gaza Strip, home to 1.2 million Palestinians and 7,000 Jewish settlers, and occupy the narrow wedge of land in the way that Israeli troops now occupy most Palestinian cities in the West Bank.

"The option of taking control of the Gaza Strip has been weighed in the past and is still being considered," the defense minister said.

This latest raid came amid talks in Cairo between Egyptian officials and representatives of Palestinian factions in an attempt to secure a cease-fire. Leaders of the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad rejected pleas to stop the violence and instead are trying to forge a unified front to escalate their attacks.

"The Israelis will pay a heavy price for every drop of blood shed last night," Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the co-founder of Hamas, told more than 40,000 people at yesterday's mass funeral that wound through Gaza's streets.

Later, Palestinian militants fired three primitive rockets into Israel; all landed in unpopulated areas and caused no damage or injuries. In the southern Gaza Strip, Palestinian officials said a 7-year-old boy playing near an Israeli military post was killed by gunfire.

The Israeli incursion came shortly before parliamentary elections tomorrow in Israel, and Palestinians said the attack was politically motivated - so that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could remind voters of his military prowess.

The intense fighting on Gaza's streets left at least 65 people injured; Palestinian officials said 20 were civilians.

The dead were men between the ages of 16 and 28. Three were members of the Palestinian military intelligence unit and one, Rami Fatchi Hassan Isa, 27, was a senior leader of Islamic Jihad's military wing.

Mustafa Hassan Saleh Fayoumi, 21, said he was shopping in a market with his brother and two cousins when a missile fired from a helicopter slammed into the ground near where he was standing.

"I didn't hear the helicopter or the missile," he said as he lay in a bed in Shifa Hospital, his right hand and arm bandaged and his faced peppered with shrapnel wounds. "I only heard the explosion. There were clashes going on, but they were well away from us."

Fayoumi, a second-year law student, shifted about his bed in obvious discomfort. His eardrums were shattered, and he had yet to be told that his 24-year-old brother, Ahmed Fayoumi, had been killed in the fighting.

Outside, crowds gathered to collect the bodies of the dead. Masked gunmen roamed hospital hallways and the parking lot outside. Their cries for revenge, shouted through bullhorns and broadcast over large speakers on the backs of flat-bed trucks, were drowned out occasionally by bursts of gunfire into the air.

Later, doctors at Shifa Hospital were able to identify the man without a face. It was Fayoumi's brother, Ahmed.

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