Israel warns it will be back as Gaza incursion is finally ended

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The Independent Online

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, made it clear last night after Israeli ground forces withdrew from Gaza that a 48-hour incursion which claimed more than 100 Palestinian lives was not a “one-time event” and operations against Hamas would continue.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, who has broken off negotiations with Israel in protest at the offensive, yesterday offered to mediate a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. There was no immediate Israeli reaction to the offer.

But Mr Olmert, who says he still wants negotiations with Mr Abbas’s authority in Ramallah to continue, told the Knesset’s foreign affairs committee that continued military “weakening” of Hamas would strengthen the negotiating process by bolstering the moderate Palestinian leadership as well as curbing rocket fire.

Mr Olmert’s pledge to sustain military pressure on Hamas came as the Israeli human rights agency Btselem challenged military claims that the large majority of those killed in the operation were militants. It declared that at least 54 of 106 Palestinians killed – including 25 minors – did “not take part in the hostilities”.

As the Israeli forces withdrew, it began to emerge that there were fierce exchanges of fire between IDF troops and armed militants almost immediately after the former established positions in the Abed Rabbo district of this heavily populated town.

Although this is a largely Fatah area, some residents said that the “Murabitoun” – a name often given in Gaza to Hamas-dominated militant groups in border zones - regularly functioned in the area only a mile away from Israel and fought for around 90 minutes here before pulling back as the Israeli forces continued their armoured advance under air cover on Saturday.

Ayman Abu Shbak, 30, described how he braved crossfire to cross the alley between his own house and the one opposite where his niece Jaqueline, 16, and his nephew Eyad, 14, lay terminally bleeding after being shot by Israeli forces in the family’s second-floor living room. Mr Abu Shbak said that at one end of the alley – where two burnt-out cars and one badly damaged one were still parked yesterday – troops had taken over a house while at the opposite junction there were about 10 armed militants.

He added: “Both sides were shooting. There was heavy fire from the resistance. He said that Eyad, who had been shot as he got up to go to the lavatory, was lying “in the lap of the girl who had gone to help him. I came down to the door and shouted at the resistance to stop firing.

“They said ‘bring the children down and we will stop.’ I went back and picked up the boy – I could feel he was still breathing – and then I felt very tired. I lost my nerve.” After he argued again with the militants, he said, one of them eventually helped him and his brother Hatem bring the children down to the ground floor and 100 metres away, where they were eventually found by an ambulance. Mr Abu Shbak added: “I went with the boy in the ambulance to Kamal Odwan hospital. He was transferred to Shifa hospital and within an hour he died.”

There was still a trail of bloodstains yesterday down the stairs where the two young teenagers had been carried. Mr Abu Shbak was certain that the two teenagers had died from Israeli bullets and pointed to the two large holes in the window directly in the line of fire from the house which he and other witnesses said had been occupied by Israeli troops. Mr Abu Shbak was adamant that militants had at no time entered the house till the rescue attempt well after the children were shot, leaving the Israeli forces no justification for shooting any of its occupants.

It is a tragic irony of war that the Abu Shbak family have no reason to love Hamas. The two teenagers were living alone with their mother and another brother, Mohammed, 12. Their Fatah activist father, also named Mohammed, is in Ramallah having been forced to flee Gaza after Hamas’s enforced takeover of the Gaza Strip in June last year. As a result neither parent – the mother was unable to move out of the immediate area because of the incursion – was able to see the bodies of their children before they were buried.

The Abu Shbak family are cousins of Rashid Abu Shbak, the long-standing Fatah security chief in Gaza, and a close ally of Mohammed Dahlan – seen as one of the Fatah leaders most favoured in the West. Hatem Abu Shbak, 32, himself a former officer in the Fatah-dominated Preventative Security, had little desire to talk internal politics yesterday. “We only want peace; peace with Israel and peace between the Palestinians.” Mr Abbas’s offer last night was one of the few – albeit very slender – hopes of achieving it.

Hamas boasted of a “victory” yesterday because of the – probably very short- term – Israeli withdrawal. But earlier at Kamal Odwan, the hospital director Bassem Abu Warda said: “Israel will not get rid of Hamas and Hamas will not get rid of Israel.”