Violence escalates in Gaza

Despite deadly raids on two refugee camps, Israel remains committed to pulling out of the territory.

The hope raised by Israel's recent proposal to withdraw from the Gaza Strip has skidded into a harsh reality: The territory is being transformed into battlefield with civilians caught in the crossfire.

The Israeli army raided two Gaza refugee camps early Sunday, killing 14 Palestinians and wounding more than 80. The incursion squelched expectations that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's offer to withdraw from the Gaza Strip - and remove all or most of the 17 settlements there - could represent a turning point in the conflict.

The raid began around 2 a.m. and continued until approximately 8 a.m., when many Palestinians were heading to work and school. It came a day after an attack on an Israeli checkpoint that the Israeli army found worrisomely innovative: Palestinian militants had painted two jeeps in the same khaki color used by the Israeli military, attempting to ram the checkpoint with explosives. In that botched attack, six Palestinians were killed.

In Sunday's raids, 10 of those killed were confirmed by local and Israeli military sources to be armed gunmen - nine of them affiliated with Hamas, the Islamic militant group opposed to all compromise with Israel. But the other four appear to be civilians, all under the age of 16, including an 8-year-old boy. According to some reports, they threw stones and firebombs at the soldiers.

Ali Mohammed, a middle-aged factory worker, said he was in the street when he saw a bullet cut down a young boy out in the street with his friends. Israeli soldiers, Mr. Mohammed says, were shooting from the roof of a building they occupied, and from helicopters. Witnesses say they also saw four or five tanks, which left behind muddied tracks, to back up the soldiers.

"He was on his way to school. I took shelter against the wall, but the boy was exposed. Everyone was running. I saw him, his face was on the ground," Mohammed says of Mahmoud Younis, the 8-year-old boy he had hoped to save. "It was a killing in cold blood."

That was the common sentiment of most Palestinians here, many of whom were already skeptical of Mr. Sharon's sincerity since he announced he would withdraw the Israeli army along with residents of 17 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. The pullout is supposed to start by the end of the year.

While some Palestinians searched for loved ones and prepared for funerals, others wore camouflage shirts and black masks over their faces. Walls in the camps were spray-painted with messages that foreshadowed more "martyrdom" - a sort of sainthood in which Palestinians include both innocent bystander and suicide bomber alike.

Ziad Abu Amr, an analyst who studied Islamic fundamentalists movements in Gaza, says that deadly invasions like Sunday's help recruit more Palestinians for attacks on Israel. "Is the idea to provoke Palestinian reaction and retaliation, and for Sharon to find a pretext to give up on his proposed withdrawal from settlements? Or is this a way to divert attention from his internal problems?" asks Mr. Amr.

"Large numbers of Palestinians would be motivated to become bombers to avenge this," he says. "It doesn't seem logical to me to cause this amount of damage. It's a lack of thinking. I would question the attack from an operational point of view. You don't need to kill this large number of people to get one wanted person or to destroy a home. There are no parameters, there are no red lines here."

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) says that, on the contrary, there was a very clear logic to their choice of target. Militants in the Gaza Strip, the army says, have stepped up their attacks on the approximately 7,000 Jewish settlers who live there. It claims the militants are constantly planning additional attacks inside Israel.

"This operation is due to all the terror attacks which have happened in past month. The attacks happen every day and night, and the attacks have grown - you can clearly see that," says an Israeli army spokeswoman.

When Israeli soldiers entered the area, she says, they came under "massive fire and returned fire towards the gunmen who were shooting at them." Palestinian militants who fired at the soldiers used antitank missiles, automatic rifle fire, and explosive devices, which she pointed to as proof of the Palestinian ammunition on hand for attacks on Israeli soldiers.

Sharon's office denied that the raid had any relation to an attack on an Israeli checkpoint on Saturday, and insisted that the upsurge in violence did not affect the Prime Minister's intention to withdraw from Gaza.

"The Prime Minister is still committed to the plan. But Israel is determined to root out terror in that area and to diminish the threat to Israelis living there. It's not something we're willing to put on the back burner," says David Baker, an official in Sharon's office. "What we do see here is a steady and rising trend to strike at Israelis at those areas."

Not all Israelis, however, are convinced that such full-force strikes against militant groups is a worthwhile tactic for fighting terrorism, given the probability of injuring and killing civilians and other innocent bystanders.

"The IDF wants to show that it has the capability to do what it wants in Gaza. They are afraid that if we are going to leave Gaza soon, now is the last time to do something against these groups," says Reuven Pedatzur, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "But does this kind of incursion result in reducing the level of terrorism? And as far as I can evaluate, nothing happens. On the contrary, after this kind of raid, there are more terrorist attacks. The only response from the Palestinian side is more violence, more revenge. I think no one's talking about the moral issue anymore."

In one hospital bed in Gaza, an 18-year-old wondered if he'd ever be able to play soccer again. Muammar El-Isawi, who had been shot in both legs, winced as he talked. "I wanted to start throwing stones at the tanks which were withdrawing. Other people were throwing stones and then I was shot from a tank," he says. "When you see all this killing around you, you just say, 'enough!' "

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