Israeli Forces End Gaza Strip Offensive
BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Israeli forces ended a weeklong offensive Tuesday aimed at halting rocket attacks from this northern Gaza town, leaving behind wrecked homes, uprooted trees and sewage-covered streets. But hours after the pullback, the Palestinian rocket fire resumed.
Israel kept up its onslaught from outside Beit Hanoun, killing 10 Palestinians in airstrikes, gunfire and tank shelling.
In one barrage Tuesday, five rockets hit the Israeli city of Ashkelon, seven miles from the Gaza border, the farthest the militants’ homemade weapons have reached into Israel. No one was hurt, the army said, but Israel hit back with artillery.
Palestinian leaders denounced Israel for continuing its offensive, but internal problems remained unsolved as negotiations dragged on to form a unity government in hopes of ending an international aid boycott.
In one incident Tuesday, two Israeli tank shells hit the house of Jamila Shanti, a Hamas lawmaker who helped organize a demonstration of women Friday that allowed dozens of Hamas militants to escape an Israeli siege on a mosque.
Shanti was not home at the time of Tuesday’s attack, which Palestinian doctors said killed three people. Hamas said two of the three were militants who were firing rockets. The army said it was responding to an attack and had not targeted Shanti’s home.
After the pre-dawn Israeli pullback, hundreds of Beit Hanoun residents, who spent most of the last week holed upside in their homes as troops and militants battled in the streets, milled around inspecting the damage.
Homes in the town of 50,000 were damaged by tanks that rumbled through its narrow streets, ripping up asphalt, toppling trees and destroying cars. The mosque that was the site of last week’s standoff was reduced to rubble. Only its minaret was left standing.
Khalil Yazgi, 45, watched as children and women picked through the rubble of the four-story structure that had been home to his extended family of 50 people. All that remained was a staircase and the exposed rooms of an apartment.
``If I was against the rockets, now I will encourage people to launch rockets from every spot,″ he said. ``This is an act of terror ... It’s as though a crazy cow walked through a porcelain shop.″
Telephone and electricity wires lay exposed on ruined roads marked with tank tracks. Tanks destroyed the outer wall of the town’s cemetery, uprooting several tombstones. Some residents tried to fix the tombstones, while others dug fresh graves for those killed in the fighting.
During an emotional funeral procession, tens of thousands of mourners filed behind ambulances carrying 23 bodies. The funerals had been delayed because the bodies could not be retrieved from the hospital. Altogether, more than 60 Palestinians were killed in the offensive. Both sides said most were militants.
Women wailed as the dead were brought out on stretchers draped with Palestinian flags, and children ran alongside the procession. Crowds chanted ``God is great.″
As the ambulances struggled along damaged roads, dozens of gunmen blared nationalist songs and militant slogans on loudspeakers, while others fired volleys into the air. The streets were awash in Palestinian flags and flags of militant groups.
President Mahmoud Abbas denounced Israel for continuing attacks after leaving Beit Hanoun. ``If Israel appeals for security and stability, shedding the blood of Palestinians is not the way,″ he said.
At the same time, Palestinian leaders struggled to find a formula for a new government, with the aim of ending eight months of crippling aid sanctions imposed by the West after Hamas, which is committed to Israel’s destruction, won legislative elections.
A second day of talks Tuesday between Abbas, a moderate who leads the Fatah movement, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas did not produce an accord, but Abbas remained hopeful. ``I hope that we will reach to a conclusion within days, or maybe within less than days,″ Abbas told reporters.
In a sign of the bitterness between the two movements, Hamas proposed Health Minister Bassem Naim _ a harsh Fatah foe _ as the new premier, but officials said Abbas rejected him.
Fatah negotiated interim peace accords with Israel in the 1990s and favors more peace talks, while the Islamic militant Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, rejects the agreements and endorses violent resistance.
The West cut off aid to the Palestinians when the Hamas-led government took office in March, and many public sector workers have not been paid since then. The West insists the Palestinian government must accept its conditions before aid is restored.
Abbas hopes to form a government comprised of independent experts that will be accepted by the West.