Ambush in Gaza kills 2 Israeli soldiers

Poll finds growing support for Sharon's pullout plan

May 15, 2004|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip ambushed and killed two Israeli soldiers yesterday, in a week when Israeli combat losses have been the heaviest during the 3 1/2 -year conflict.

The violence in the narrow strip of seaside territory, which has left 13 Israeli soldiers and more than 30 Palestinians dead, erupted at a time of agonizing and divisive debate over Israel's presence in Gaza.

Opinion polls released yesterday found a significant strengthening of what had been a solid Israeli majority supporting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's initiative to withdraw troops and settlers from Gaza. A survey published in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper indicated that 71 percent were in favor of a Gaza pullout.

Opponents of relinquishing the Gaza settlements continued to insist that a departure would amount to caving in to Palestinian militants. Sharon's conservative Likud Party voted down the withdrawal plan by a 3-2 margin this month.

The latest military fatalities occurred as Israel was burying three of the five soldiers killed Wednesday in an attack on an armored personnel carrier. The blast that blew apart their vehicle was so powerful that recovering the soldiers' remains has been exhausting and dangerous.

Exposing themselves to Palestinian sniper fire, lines of Israeli soldiers crawled near the Rafah refugee camp for a second day yesterday, hand-sifting the sand in hopes of finding scraps of flesh. Images of the hunt for body parts dominated the front pages of all major Israeli newspapers.

The two most recent attacks took place in what has become one of the most violent corners of the Palestinian territories, the Israeli-controlled corridor dividing the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

Israel announced that in an effort to improve security, it would widen the strip of no-man's land along the border and that to do so it has embarked on a new round of destroying Palestinian structures.

Hundreds of buildings near the border could be knocked down as part of the operation, according to Israeli news reports. The United Nations refugee agency working in the region said it was giving shelter to more than 40 families it said were left homeless by yesterday's demolitions.

Israeli leftists denounced the demolitions as inhumane.

Israeli security officials said leaving the buildings standing would have endangered troops in the area because the structures were being used as cover by militants for firing rockets and anti-tank missiles.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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