Palestinians retrieve belongings from rubble of homes after punishing Israeli offensive

Saturday, October 16th 2004, 9:31 am
By: News On 6

JEBALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Palestinians retrieved belongings from the rubble of homes and work crews patched up roads and water pipes Saturday in the aftermath of Israel's deadliest offensive in the Gaza Strip in four years of fighting.

The 17-day mission ended Friday evening, when Israel withdrew tanks and ground forces from populated areas in northern Gaza. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the pullback at the urging of Israeli military commanders, who argued the offensive had played itself out, and after calls from the United States to wrap up the operation.

At least 109 Palestinians were killed and hundreds more wounded during the campaign, launched in response to a deadly rocket attack on the southern Israeli border town of Sderot. The dead included dozens of civilians, among them 18 minors.

Five Israelis, including two preschoolers killed in the Sderot attack, also died.

The Israeli operation focused on the Jebaliya refugee camp and the towns of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, the main launching grounds for hundreds of homemade Qassam rockets in the past four years.

Tanks and bulldozers razed dozens of homes, uprooted crops and tore up roads and water pipes. The Palestinians say much of the destruction was wanton. The army said soldiers only destroyed homes from which militants attacked them.

In Jebaliya, at least 45 homes and a partially built mosque were razed in the eastern area of the camp. On the ground floor of the mosque, which had been in use for the past five months, sand covered carpets and holy books.

Residents searched the rubble for belongings Saturday.

Latife Abu Oudeh, 55, was sitting on the rubble as her daughter-in-law carried mattresses, children's clothing, a pink teddy bear, silverware and a bag with cosmetics and perfume from the ruins of their house.

Abu Oudeh said her four-room house, home to 16 people, was destroyed at the beginning of the offensive. She said the family received no warning and was sleeping when a bulldozer approached before dawn. ``My daughter was in the bathroom when she found the wall collapsing,'' Abu Oudeh said.

The family fled in a panic, she said. ``When we reached the next building, I looked back and saw my house completely demolished,'' Abu Oudeh said.

Many Palestinians in northern Gaza have said that they don't want the militants to fire more rockets at Israeli border towns, because such attacks provoke devastating Israeli reprisals.

However, Abu Oudeh said her heart was now set on revenge. ``I am happy rockets were fired, and I want more to be fired,'' she said bitterly, adding that she was pleased Sderot residents were panicking over the rocket attacks.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza said that according to a preliminary count, at least 80 houses were demolished in northern Gaza during the assault, including at least 60 in Jebaliya and 20 in Beit Lahiya. The group said dozens of homes, shops and public buildings were damaged.

Shortly before the pullback Friday, a 65-year-old Palestinian woman was shot in the head and killed by Israeli tank fire while eating a traditional Ramadan dinner in her home, Palestinian hospital officials said.

Military sources said soldiers had opened fire in the area after being attacked by an anti-tank missile. The army also said Palestinians had fired a rocket.

For the most part, Israeli forces had remained outside of Jebaliya, a densely populated stronghold of Hamas militants. Late Friday, Palestinian gunmen in Jebaliya fired automatic rifles into the air, claiming victory.

In another development, 60 Israeli rabbis added their voices to a prominent rabbi's call to Orthodox Jewish soldiers to refuse to obey orders to evacuate settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli media reported.

Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan calls for uprooting 21 Jewish settlements next year, along with four enclaves in the West Bank.

Sharon faces growing opposition to his plan, including from religious settlers who consider the West Bank to be land promised to the Jews in the bible.