Palestinians venture home after pullback of Israeli troops

`There is not much left here for us,' woman cries

October 17, 2004|By Fayed Abu Shammalah and Laura King | Fayed Abu Shammalah and Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip -- From yesterday's earliest light, they looked to salvage a schoolbook here, a cooking pan there, a dust-choked quilt or a shattered picture frame.

Hours after Friday night's pullback of Israeli troops from a densely populated swath of the northern Gaza Strip, Palestinians who had fled the fighting 17 days earlier ventured back to their homes -- or in some cases, what had been their homes.

Human rights groups said about 80 houses had been destroyed during fighting in and near the Jabaliya refugee camp, a sprawling slum of more than 100,000 people.

"There is not much left here for us," murmured a weeping 58-year-old Palestinian woman, Umm Mohi el-Din Yehiyah. She, along with neighbors, had come to root through the ruins of her home in the eastern sector of Jabaliya, hit hard in the first wave of the incursion.

Israeli troops and tanks flooded a swath of northern Gaza after two preschoolers in the southern Israeli town of Sderot were killed when Palestinian militants fired a volley of homemade rockets from the seaside territory on Sept. 29.

More than 110 Palestinians were killed in the incursion, the largest in Gaza since the eruption of the current conflict, now in its fifth year. The Islamic militant group Hamas said yesterday that about 40 of the dead were members of its military wing.

Israel came under heavy international criticism for the Gaza offensive. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others questioned whether it had been a disproportionate response to the use of crude Kassam rockets by Palestinian militants.

Israeli officials have been careful to describe the troop movement as a redeployment rather than a withdrawal. Troops and armor took up positions on high ground inside the Gaza Strip, while others moved just across the border, ready to rumble in again at a moment's notice.

Following a pattern that has prevailed since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his intention to withdraw troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, both sides were determined not to appear defeated.

"We are determined not to leave Gaza under a hail of Kassam fire," said Raanan Gissin, a senior adviser to Sharon. Gissin and other Sharon aides said Israel would re-enter northern Gaza if the firing of the homemade projectiles recommences.

Palestinian officials denounced the offensive. "It is part of an attempt ... to bring our people to their knees," Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. "This, of course, will never happen."

The Israeli incursion, spearheaded by tanks and armored bulldozers, left a trail of destruction: collapsed cement-block houses, burst pipes spraying precious water and dangling electrical wires. Some buildings were pocked with hundreds of bullet holes.

Israeli officials said the pullback was due in part to sensitivities associated with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began Friday.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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