A city quakes under tremor of war: Soldiers hunting assassins wage a forlorn battle of propaganda and bullets, writes Robert Fisk in Gaza

THEY refused to let the ambulances pass. The United Nations officials were turned away. As the smoke rose from the Tofah suburbs of Gaza City, the Israelis even told the fire brigade to stay out. We could hear the explosions all day, punctuated by rifle fire and the throb of a Huey gunship that circled the slums. The Israelis were busy losing their war in Gaza.

Of course, it did not feel like that to the Palestinians. For Abdul-Rahman al-Shebaki, groaning in front of the X-ray machine at the al-Ahli hospital last night with the fragment of a high-velocity Israeli bullet lodged three inches from his heart, the Israelis were doing what they wanted in Tofah. 'I walked in the street during the curfew - I was very close to the soldiers - and I thought they'd let me go home,' Mr Shebaki moaned as Dr Salah Saf applied a wad of bandages to the area below his heart.

The nurses produced a series of X-ray photographs that showed an ominous, white smudge perforating Mr Shebaki's diaphragm, an image held up to the light before his angry, muttering family and friends. The 21-year-old Palestinian had seen the soldier who shot him clean through the chest.

'Why are you here?' a bearded Palestinian had asked us as we cowered in a pharmacy, trying to avoid arrest by the Israeli major who had already brandished a 'closed military area' prohibition document in our faces. 'We need help,' the Palestinian pleaded. 'You've just come here to watch us dance.' We had already watched the first two prisoners taken out of Tofah, wrists clamped tightly with handcuffs, heads bowed in the back of an Israeli jeep.

The Israelis would not say why they were raiding Tofah, but no one in Gaza City doubted they were searching for the Palestinian gunmen who had axed and shot to death Ian Feinberg on Sunday. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine's so-called 'Red Eagles' had claimed responsibility for murdering the Israeli lawyer - quite possibly with the intention of provoking the Israelis into just the kind of military operation that would further embitter thousands of Palestinians.

If so, they were successful. While they blew up houses in Tofah, the Israelis cordoned off the old Beach Camp refugee slums beside the Mediterranean. We found a bearded man there, leaning from a window shortly after breakfast. 'My wife is pregnant and in pain, but the Israelis won't let me take her to hospital in the curfew,' he shouted down to us. A skilful piece of propaganda for a visiting journalist?

The Israeli patrol that pulled up less than a minute later would have us believe so. They told us to leave the area, claiming that the pregnant woman had already been taken to hospital. But the Israeli soldiers were not telling the truth. From the moment they left, we crept into the man's home and, sure enough, found his 15-year-old wife, seven months pregnant, weeping in the yard, holding her hands over her stomach. We broke the curfew and took her to the UN's hospital. Her first child, the duty doctor said, was not in danger. She had feared she was in premature labour.

What did all this achieve? I asked the Israeli major just that as we stood in Salahadin Street. Wasn't Gaza simply a hopeless case, I asked, a war that was already lost to Israel? What do you suggest we do, he asked wearily. 'What can we do?' Well, how about leaving Gaza? 'It's a political question,' he replied.

And he was right. For no matter how many slums are blown up for Mr Feinberg's murder, no matter how many Palestinians are arrested, the Israelis have lost their war in Gaza. The walls are heavy with the graffiti of hatred, of threats of fire and blood from Hamas and the PLO. The moment the Israelis leave a street, it reverts to Palestinian control. Like southern Lebanon after Israel's doomed adventure there almost a decade ago.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments