Israel's secret war: the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Palestine

A 12-year-old boy dead on a stretcher. A mother in shock and disbelief after her son was shot dead for standing on their roof. A phone rings and a voice in broken Arabic orders residents to abandon their home on pain of death.

Those are snapshots of a day in Gaza where Israel is waging a hidden war, as the world looks the other way, focusing on Lebanon.

It is a war of containment and control that has turned the besieged Strip into a prison with no way in or out, and no protection from an fearsome battery of drones, precision missiles, tank shells and artillery rounds.

As of last night, 29 people had been killed in the most concentrated 48 hours of violence since an Israeli soldier was abducted by Palestinian militants just more than a month ago.

The operation is codenamed "Samson's Pillars", a collective punishment of the 1.4 million Gazans, subjecting them to a Lebanese-style offensive that has targeted the civilian infrastructure by destroying water mains, the main power station and bridges.

The similarities with Israel's blitz on Lebanon are striking, raising suspicions that the Gaza offensive has been the testing ground for the military strategy now unfolding on the second front in the north.

In Gaza, following the victory of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas in January, Israel, with the help of the US, initiated an immediate boycott and ensured the rest of the world fell into line after months of hand-wringing. Israel has secured the same flashing green light from the Bush administration over Lebanon, while the rest of the world appeals in vain for an immediate ceasefire.

The Israelis, who launched their Lebanon offensive on 12 July after the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah fighters, intend to create a "sterile" zone devoid of militants in a mile-wide stretch inside Lebanon.

In Gaza, Palestinian land has already been bulldozed to form a 300-metre open area along the border with Israel proper. And in both cases, the crisis will doubtless end up being defused by a prisoner exchange. With Lebanon dominating the headlines, Israel has "rearranged the occupation" in Gaza, in the words of the Palestinian academic and MP, Hanan Ashrawi. But unlike the Lebanese, the desperate Gazans have nowhere to flee from their humanitarian crisis.

Before Israeli tanks moved into northern Gaza, yesterday, 12-year-old Anas Zumlut joined the ranks of dead Palestinians, numbering more than 100. His body was wrapped in a funeral shroud, just like those of the two sisters, a three-year-old and an eight-month-old baby, who were killed three days ago in the same area of Jablaya.

In the past three weeks, the foreign ministry and the interior ministry in Gaza city have been smashed, prompting speculation that Israel's offensive is not only aimed at securing the release of Cpl Gilad Shalit, or bringing an end to the Qassam rocket attacks that have wounded one person in the past month and jarred the nerves of the residents of the nearest Israeli town of Sderot.

"At first we thought they were bombing the Hamas leaders by targeting Haniyeh and Zahar," a Palestinian official said, referring to the Palestinian Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister. "But when they targeted the economy ministry we decided they wanted to completely destroy the entire government."

The only functioning crossing, Erez, is closed to Palestinians who are almost hermetically sealed inside the Strip. As the local economy has been strangled by donor countries, Gaza City's 1,800 municipal employees have not been paid since the beginning of April. Families are borrowing to the hilt, selling their jewellery, ignoring electricity bills and tax demands and throwing themselves on the mercy of shopkeepers.

Western officials say they hope the pressure will coerce Hamas into recognising Israel but the Palestinians believe the real goal is the collapse of the Hamas government - six of whose cabinet members have been arrested, the rest are in hiding.

The signs on the ground are that Israel's military pressure is proving counter-productive. There is the risk of a total breakdown of the fabric of society at a time when the main political parties, Fatah and Hamas, are at each other's throats. "The popularity of Hamas is increasing," says the Palestinian deputy foreign minister, Ahmed Soboh, from the comparative safety of his West Bank office in Ramallah.

The situation has become unbearable for Gazans, says Nabil Shaath, a veteran Fatah official who is a former foreign and planning minister. Through the window, small fishing boats are anchored uselessly in the harbour, penned in by Israeli sea patrols.

All mechanisms for coping are being exhausted.

Mr Shaath, who had a daughter, Mimi, late in life, says that he tried "laughter therapy" with his five-year-old at home in northern Gaza. "Every time there was a shell, I would burst out laughing and she would laugh with me. But then the Israelis occupied everything around us, and there were tanks, and shrapnel in the garden, and she saw where the shells were coming from, and she was terrified. So Mimi now gets angry when I laugh."

Only a few miles away, on the other side of the border, the Israeli army says it is taking pains to minimise civilian casualties. Hila, a 21-year old paratrooper who is not allowed to give her last name, says the Hamas fighters in Gaza - like Hizbollah in Lebanon - deliberately mingle with the civilian population as a tactic. Weapons are stored in the upper storeys of houses where families live downstairs, she says. "The terrorists deliberately choose places where we can't retaliate."

But these places are being hit. And Mr Shaath is scornful of the disproportionate Israeli reaction to the Palestinian rockets. Five Israelis have been killed by the 10km range Qassams since 2000.

Mrs Ashrawi believes Samson's Pillars are no closer to falling. "Israelis think they are searing the consciousness of the Palestinians and the Lebanese with a branding iron. But if people have a cause they will never be defeated."

Day 17

* Israeli aircraft kill 12 in southern Lebanon, with hill villages near Tyre among the targets.

* Hizbollah fires a new long-range missile, the Khaibar-1, at Afula south of Haifa, the furthest a Hizbollah rocket has landed inside Israel.

* At least six people are wounded in rocket attacks on northern Israel. One rocket hits a hospital in Nahariya.

* US State Department describes Israel's remarks that the Rome conference gave it a ''green light'' to continue its attack on Lebanon as ''outrageous''.

* Emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland asks Israel and Hizbollah for a 72-hour ceasefire to allow evacuation of the elderly.

* Israeli aircraft attack homes owned by Palestinian militants and a metal workshop in the Gaza Strip, wounding seven, doctors say.

* Death toll:

At least 459 people, mostly civilians, in Lebanon

* 51 Israelis, including 18 civilians, according to Reuters' tally.

* Israeli military says 200 Hizbollah fighters killed, Hizbollah has said 31 of its fighters killed.

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