Najah Abu Amra, 40, was disinclined to express an opinion about the abduction which triggered the arrival of Israeli troops.
"I don't know about that," she said to the sound of machine-gun fire from the long-closed Gaza airport a kilometre away, "I can't say about the [Israeli] soldier, but I am worried for my children." Mrs Abu Amra, looking anxious and carrying a baby in her arms, said she was one of a group of eight families ordered out of their homes bordering the airport last Wednesday when Israeli forces took it over. Yesterday she and several other mothers went back, waving white flags made out of headscarves tied to branches, to try to retrieve clothes and food for their children. But they were prevented by warning fire from Israeli armoured units.
She said: "We had to come back here. We are staying here with our friends." Mrs Abu Amra and her neighbours are among the few Palestinians caught in the front line of this ground conflict which has so far been restricted to sections of the northern and southern extremities of the Gaza Strip. In contrast to June, when, according to the Israeli human rights agency B'tselem, 24 Palestinian non-combatants were killed, no civilians had by last night been reported killed by Israeli fire since the campaign began eight days ago.
As the deadline set by militants holding 19-year-old Cpl Gilad Shalit for Israel to agree prisoner releases expired yesterday, the groups including members of Hamas's military wing said they would "freeze" contacts with mediators but would not kill their captive.
Most ominously, however, militants launched a Qassam rocket for the first time into the centre of the coastal city of Ashkelon at least 12 kilometres away, hitting an empty school. Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, described the attack, claimed by Hamas's military wing, as a "major escalation in the war of terror" and warning that Hamas would be the first to feel "far-reaching consequences".
Meanwhile, the Erez crossing into northern Gaza from Israel was closed as troops, backed by tanks, armoured vehicles and bulldozers, moved over the border there for the first time and directed heavy fire at the Palestinian side of the crossing.
Earlier, an overnight missile attack destroyed a students' council building in Gaza City's Islamic University and another killed a militant in northern Gaza. That Israel had not yet embarked on a full-scale ground incursion appears partly to reflect the need not to endanger further Cpl Shalit as well as external pressure.
The Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said yesterday that Israel had "reasons " to believe he was alive. General Yossi Kupperwasser, the former Israeli intelligence chief, said Hamas showed a lack "of reasonable accountability". "It is as if the Israeli air force launched an attack in Gaza and Ehud Olmert said, 'I don't know what's going on. I'll have to find out'." He added that the "ball is in the court of the Palestinians" and that the alternative to Cpl Shalit's release and a halt to Qassam rockets would be a military campaign.
Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is spearheading an intense diplomatic effort to mobilise pressure from countries including Saudi Arabia on Syria to bear down on the Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal to whom Israel and allies of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, believe the captors of Cpl Shalit are ultimately answerable to release the soldier possibly in return for the informal promise of future releases of Palestinian prisoners.