Gaza shattered by ferocious land, sea and air strikes

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The Independent Online

Less than 48 hours after Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, vowed to pound the Palestinians into submission by giving them a "bad beating", the Israeli armed forces set about the task in the Gaza Strip yesterday.

The 1.1 million Arabs crammed into the 28-mile long coastal region have frequently been bombed and raided since Mr Sharon took office exactly one year ago but the latest assaults were among the worst.

Yesterday, Gazans ranging from the Palestinian Authority's security chiefs – men once flattered by Washington, groomed by the CIA and cultivated as fellow-negotiators by Israel – to dirt-poor police on the street were assessing the damage of attacks from land, sea and air.

It could have been far worse but that does not diminish the fact it swept away at least another nine lives, bringing the total deaths in about a week to more than 100 Palestinians and Israelis, including many civilians.

As he stood next to the wreckage of one of his Gaza City headquarters, Brigadier- General Abdel Razek Majaidie, Yasser Arafat's vice-president for security affairs, was pondering the thought that the death toll could have included him and the top brass of Gaza's security personnel.

Just after 11am, half of the two-storey building was reduced to rubble by a 1,000lb bomb dropped by an Israeli F-16 in a rare daytime attack.

His ornate, heavily draped office remained intact but his forces' filing system was blown open, its contents fluttering among the wreckage. His men took the precaution of building several small fires, to burn files on the spot.

According to Brigadier Majaidie, Gaza's security chiefs would have been in the middle of their regular 10.30am meeting when the bomb struck, had he not postponed it until midday because his colleagues had been up all night, monitoring Israeli attacks.

He wasn't sure if the Israelis were trying to kill him or frighten him. "Both cases are possible," he said.

Israel has probably not reached that point yet, not least because it will be reluctant to lose the few senior Palestinians who are willing to deal with it. Its officials argue that the strategy is to batter the Palestinian Authority's structures with such military force that the more "moderate" Palestinian voices will persuade the leadership to clamp down on armed groups and make a deal.

That line – which ignores Mr Sharon's persistent rejection of the Mitchell peace plan, and his life-long rejection of anything resembling a viable Palestinian nation – is dismissed by Palestinian officials, who believe Mr Sharon is systematically destroying the institutions of state in an effort to annihilate their claims to statehood.

Brigadier Majaidie said: "Sharon is trying to destroy the Palestinian Authority, destroy its infrastructures and make us give up all talk of past agreements and all our demands for a restoration of the 1967 borders, the removal of settlements and the right of return of Palestinian refugees."

He was not alone in his shock. A few miles to the north, on the coast road, nervous policemen showed off the wreckage of a police post, blasted by a missile fired from an Israeli tank and a gunboat during a commando raid that killed four Palestinians – four security forces and one civilian. There were Israeli gunboats around, and there had been shooting on the road all day, they explained, a fact reinforced when Aref Abu Nahel, 55, set off on his bicycle to work at a hotel. There was a volley of shots, and he quickly returned.

The attacks came after Palestinian paramilitaries, for the first time, hit an Israeli home with a home-made Kassam rocket fired from Gaza, injuring a small child. But the targets were varied, and went well beyond reprisal for any one single incident.

Chief among the targets was the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Marxist faction that, last August, inflicted the first humiliation against the Israeli army by bursting into an outpost and killing three soldiers.

In the early hours yesterday, Israeli special forces raided the central Gazan village of Abassan in search of the alleged mastermind of that operation, Issam Abu Daka, a senior DFLP official. He was not there.

But reports from the area – barred to journalists – said they assassinated another DFLP man, Adbel-Ghani Abu Daka, 57, and killed two civilians, a 47-year-old woman called Mujfidah Abu Daka and a 27-year-old man.

¿ Uefa has suspended all European competition matches scheduled to take place in Israel until further notice because of the conflict, the football body announced yesterday.

¿ A Brussels appeals court has set 15 May for another hearing into whether Belgium has the right to prosecute Ariel Sharon for alleged war crimes linked to the 1982 massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut. Lawyers will debate the relevance of a ruling by the International Court of Justice upholding a former Congolese foreign minister?s immunity from prosecution in Belgium.

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