In search for militants, Israelis blow up houses

The light went out in the Akhras family house at 7:50 a.m. Saturday when the Israeli army operation here was approaching its climax: the blowing up of Salah Shehadeh's house, a wanted Hamas leader.

The detonation in Beit Hanoun was part of what Israel has described as "a rolling campaign" against Palestinian terrorists. The campaign involves raiding Palestinian towns, imposing curfews, blowing up houses believed to be linked to fugitives, and arresting people suspected of planning and carrying out attacks against Israeli targets.

An estimated 30 tanks rolled into Beit Hanoun Friday night, meeting gunfire from Palestinians armed with Kalashnikovs. A 16-year-old Palestinian and three policemen were killed, Palestinians said.

Israel said its tanks returned fire at "sources of fire," while Palestinians termed the killings "executions." About 70 Palestinians were injured. There were no Israeli casualties.

Israeli forces demolished four houses belonging to civilians, in addition to that of Sheikh Shehadeh. Their owners stood amid the rubble yesterday.

"I feel destroyed. Where will we go?" asked one of them, Nasser Shehadeh Hamdan, a father of 10.

No mention of these demolitions was made in the army spokesman's summary. "Throughout the operation, IDF forces avoided harming the civilian population," it said.

Twelve-year-old Mohammad Akhras recalled yesterday how he saw six Israeli tanks in front of his house.

A soldier yelled out that the family of Salah Shehadeh should come outside. Shehadeh, the senior Hamas commander in the Gaza Strip, had lived in the big house next door to the Akhras's before going into hiding some time ago.

Then a tank shell ripped through the bedroom used by five Akhras daughters and another crashed through the livingroom. The family crawled through a passageway into the garage. Mahmoud Akhras then went outside with his hands raised and walked up to a tank to tell the soldiers to stop firing, relatives recalled.

The soldiers asked him why he had not come out when they had called out earlier. He explained to them that his house was not the Shehadeh house. That it was next door.

The next thing Mohammad Akhras saw was his father being blindfolded, his hands bound, and taken away by the soldiers.

Soon thereafter, the army blew up the Shehadeh house.

At the copper factory where Mr. Akhras worked for 14 years in the Israeli town of Ashdod, staffers were shocked to hear of his arrest and the shelling of his house.

"This is exactly someone who does not deserve it. He is a good man. This is heart wrenching," said one. Asked if he could have been involved in violent activities, the staffer said, "No, absolutely not."

The company confirmed that Akhras had worked at the factory until four months ago, which means he had the highest security clearance granted by Israeli authorities.

Yaacov Olshak, the company owner, declined to comment, saying only: "This person does not work for me."

IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz said yesterday that all 15 men arrested in Beit Hanoun were "big terrorists."

Asked about the shelling of the Akhras house, Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said: "When the US went into Afghanistan it caused a great deal of damage there that it did not intend to."

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