Palestinians claim victory after Gaza gun battles leave 38 dead

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The Independent Online

The death toll in three days of fighting in the Gaza Strip reached 38 last night when 12 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces searching for the remains of five soldiers.

The death toll in three days of fighting in the Gaza Strip reached 38 last night when 12 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces searching for the remains of five soldiers.

Eleven of the Palestinians were killed in two helicopter missile attacks in Rafah, while a 12th was shot dead last night in the southern frontier town's embattled refugee camp. The Israeli army said it had fired at two groups of armed gunmen. Palestinian sources said four of the 11 killed were militants. Another 15 Palestinians were killed in Gaza City in the same period.

Despite the death toll Palestinian militants in the Zeitun district of Gaza City proclaimed a victory yesterday after Israeli forces finally pulled out at dawn after a 52-hour gun battle. The fighting ended when armed factions handed over the seized remains of six soldiers killed when their troop carrier was blown up on Tuesday morning.

The Israeli Prime Minister yesterday thanked President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt for his government's role in brokering the handover.

Thousands of Zeitun residents picked their way past burnt-out cars and ravaged storefronts through rubble, broken glass and thick mud caused by fractured water mains after emerging from their homes for the first time since Monday night.

As they queued close to the devastated centre of the neighbourhood to buy food and medical supplies, crowds of shouting children brandishing plastic jerry cans clambered on to a tanker to secure fresh water for their families.

Water and electricity supplies had been cut off to most of the area's 8,000 homes by the fighting, in which the main street had become a shooting gallery for Israeli armoured forces and Palestinian gunmen.

Through a loudspeaker an Islamic Jihad activist told mourners in the funeral procession of Fauzi al-Madhoun, the 33-year-old credited locally with having blown up the Israeli armoured troop carrier on Tuesday: "The children of Zionism are retreating. We did not give back the remains of the bodies until they withdrew from Zeitun. This is our victory."

As the procession left the Salahadeen mosque with the body of Madhoun, who was killed in a helicopter missile attack on Wednesday, draped in the black and yellow flag of Islamic Jihad, balaclava-clad militants carrying Kalashnikovs and a machine-gun triumphantly fired in to the air, despite being told: "Don't shoot. We need the bullets for the enemy."

There were signs that the Israelis had conducted something of a scorched earth policy before withdrawing, exploding dozens of charges in the road, supposedly to detonate any still active explosives planted by Palestinian militants, and destroying eight buildings, making 92 people homeless. The owner of a demolished seven-storey apartment building opposite where the troop carrier had been blown up said it had been destroyed by explosives between 7pm and 10pm on Wednesday night. By that time there were reports that the factions were ready to hand back the remains of the soldiers in return for the Israelis withdrawing from Zeitun.

The owner, Salman Hajer, who runs a construction business, said that the building, in which 13 of his family had been living, had first been hit by army fire in the early hours of Tuesday. He had carried his four-year-old daughter into another room after shots came through her window. When soldiers arrived at the building they told him to strip, apparently to see that he was not carrying weapons, and then ordered him to show them each room in the building. He said that he had invested $1m in three adjacent blocks in the street after returning from the US to Gaza after the Oslo accords, adding: "This has destroyed me. It is not a little thing they have done." He added: "I didn't even hear the explosion of the [troop carrier], there was so much noise and so many explosions that I didn't distinguish it."

He said that Israeli soldiers had shot at his family after evacuating them from the building into an alleyway before destroying it on Wednesday. He said that he did not hear that six Israeli soldiers had been killed until much later, but added: "when I did hear I was happy they had been punished."

Hamis Ashur, a carpenter whose house had a gaping hole in its external wall from explosives, said that Israeli soldiers had forced his entire extended family of 45 to 50 people into a single room for 12 hours after arriving on Tuesday night at the start of a period of continuous shooting. "I speak Hebrew and I had to ask permission every few minutes for people to go to the bathroom. Children were urinating on the floor. Women were crying, children were crying. This has been like an earthquake for us. This is the first time we have been exposed to such a bitter experience."

Pointing to the broken windows and egg-spattered floor of his brother's supermarket in the same building, he said the frozen stock was useless because of the loss of electricity supply.

The army chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, said: "For as long as there is terrorism in Gaza, an infrastructure of terror, and arms of the sort that threaten the settlements in the [western Negev] area, we will need to continue to operate against the terror infrastructure in Gaza on every front."

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