After a six-day barrage, Israel leaves Gaza town to count dead
Wednesday 08 November 2006
The Israeli army withdrew from Beit Hanoun yesterday at the end of a six-day search-and-destroy operation, leaving behind a ravaged Gaza town angrily counting the cost.
A dozen of the 56 Palestinian dead were still being buried in rough, hurriedly assembled open coffins. "Damn the Jews," shouted some among thousands of mourners. "A nation of sacrifice and blood will never kneel," a Hamas activist blared through a loudspeaker. Palestinian health officials said that 17 of the dead were civilians.
During an emotional funeral procession, tens of thousands of mourners filed behind ambulances carrying the bodies.
Women wailed as the dead were brought out to the streets on stretchers draped with Palestinian flags. Children ran alongside the procession and crowds chanted "God is great".
Israeli troops, who had invaded the northern Gaza Strip to stop militants launching home-made Qassam rockets at their border towns and villages, killed eight more militants and a woman civilian yesterday in skirmishes after the withdrawal. They included Nahala Shanti, 45, the sister-in-law of the Hamas legislator who organised a human shield of hundreds of women that enabled 60 gunmen to escape an Israeli siege. A tank shelled the MP's house after soldiers said that militants fired two rocket-propelled grenades at them.
A green topped minaret was all that remained of the 700-year-old an-Nasr Mosque, where the fugitive gunmen had defied Israeli bulldozers for 19 hours last Friday. "This is a movie that should be seen by Arab leaders and George Bush," a woman in black headscarf protested to anyone who would listen.
"They have destroyed the house of God. If it was a synagogue, the whole world would condemn it."
The town's 43,000 inhabitants have paid a heavy price. The invasion destroyed 25 houses and damaged 200 more, as well as 20 lorries and other vehicles. Sewage flowed over muddy roads yesterday; trees were uprooted; electricity poles were tilting and buckled; telephone lines hung loose.
Zakaria Nasser, a travel agent, found his two buildings severely damaged when he returned to work. "I have lost all that I have earned and saved for many years," he lamented amid the rubble.
Sufian Hamad, the town clerk, estimated the damage could reach $15m (£7.5m). "This is worse than the 1967 war," he said. But he did not think the devastation would turn people against the militants, as the Israelis hoped. "Do you want me to stop the resistance while the Israelis are killing us?" he asked.
Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas Prime Minister, has pledged $1m to rehabilitate Beit Hanoun. The locals yesterday criticised Mahmoud Abbas, the more moderate Fatah President, for doing nothing for the town. "I am a Fatah supporter," Mr Hamad confided, "but this war against Beit Hanoun has made Hamas stronger".
As four Qassam rockets hit the Israeli coastal town of Ashkelon yesterday, damaging a school, the army was drawing up its own balance sheet. Major Avital Leibovitz, a military spokeswoman, said: "The object of this operation was not to stop the Qassams 100 per cent. The point was to try to minimise the launchings and to target the rocket infrastructure. We have attained that goal."
Israel's ground and air forces killed dozens of fighters for the loss of one Israeli soldier. They hit nine rocket launching cells, including some responsible for manufacturing Qassams.
The army captured or destroyed what it described as "large quantities" of arms and ammunition, including rocket launchers, anti-tank missile launchers, AK-47 rifles, and many grenades.
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