Bitterness deepens over Gaza raid

Israel kept up its offensive Thursday. At least 40 Palestinians, many children, have died in the fighting.

Najwa Mohammed El Hashash was desperate to keep her oldest son from rushing out to the angry funeral processions of the latest martyr, so every time a Palestinian in their neighborhood was killed, she hid his sandals.

But 9-year-old Mubarak went anyway, running barefoot. And Thursday, his mother's worst nightmare was realized as her son was held aloft by the procession instead of scampering alongside it. He was the youngest of 10 Palestinians killed on Wednesday when the Israeli army fired a tank shell at a crowd of mostly young demonstrators demanding an end to Israel's military siege of the area.

International demands that Israel end its campaign against this section of the Gaza Strip, a patchwork of sandy plains and shanty refugee camps bordering Egypt, have grown more vocal as the military continued a third day of raids in which 39 Palestinians have been killed. Israel says its operations are aimed at routing militant groups and destroying tunnels used to ferry weapons into the Gaza Strip - all part of a plan to eventually withdraw from the volatile area where Israel maintains about 8,000 settlers.

"Those innocent kids killed in front of the television cameras, for nothing," says Mrs. El Hashash, as she sat with other female relatives, her brown eyes drowning as she waits for the men to come home from the cemetery. "I wish that every Israeli soldier's mother will be sad and angry one day, the way they left me sad and angry."

There is, indeed, a new bitterness in the air here, like a sour fruit growing on the trees along with the dates and oranges. It has fostered an atmosphere of resentment that makes it less likely that anyone here will take Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stated intentions to withdraw from the Gaza Strip as a sign of a turnaround in the Israeli leadership. And even for many Israelis, the campaign, dubbed "Operation Rainbow," it is looking increasingly difficult to see any treasure at the end.

"Until the Next Mistake," read a page-one headline in the largest circulation daily, Yediot Aharonot. "Even if we believe the army's explanations for yesterday's mistake - and we so much want to believe - the sand in the hourglass for the legitimacy of continuing the IDF operation in Rafah is running out," wrote Alex Fishman.

The Israeli military said it fired a warning missile to force back a crowd of protesters, after it spotted gunmen among them. As the crowd advanced, the army said, four tank shells were fired at an abandoned building obstructing the Israeli soldiers' view of the protesters who were marching behind it.

But the official apology from the army for the loss of civilian life, coupled with a simultaneous Israeli pledge to continue the operations in Rafah, has not swayed international opinion amassing against Israel's largest military foray in the Gaza Strip in years.

The Bush administration, which has been overwhelmingly sympathetic to Israel's standpoint since the new intifada broke out some three and-a-half years ago, registered a rare public vote of discontent with the military incursion by not defending Israel in the United Nations on Wednesday. The UN Security Council demanded that Israel put an end to the violence and branded the latest violence a "war crime." The US allowed the resolution to be adopted by abstaining rather than using its veto, as it has so many times in the past when Arab states have combined efforts to chastise Israel.

Since it views Israel in a war on terror similar to America's, the Bush administration has withheld criticism of Israeli military raids in the recent past, and only became critical when Israel began demolishing a block of houses here last week in order to widen a corridor called the Philadelphia Road, separating Gaza from Egypt. But Israel's continued incursions, especially at a time when the US image in the Middle East is slipping daily due to mishaps in Iraq, has made it more difficult for the US to keep its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the agenda.

"I believe the activities of the Israeli defense forces in Gaza in recent days have caused a problem and have worsened the situation and, I think, made it more difficult for us to move forward and get back into the peace process," Secretary of State Colin Powell said.

An additional complication is the fate of Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, who was convicted in a Tel Aviv court Thursday of orchestrating the killings of at least five Israelis. He had been charged with more than 26 counts of murder.

Mr. Barghouti, who made his name as a young leader during the first intifada between 1987 and 1993, was elected to the Palestinian legislative council in 1996 and soon became known as a firebrand who might one day succeed Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat.

He spearheaded the intifada that broke out in September 2000, and is accused of giving orders to the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, a militant offshoot of Mr. Arafat's secular Fatah faction. Israel arrested him in April 2002.

While Israel accuses him of masterminding killings of Israelis, he has become a popular symbol of the Palestinian resistance movement and is said to have gained more supporters while in prison. He could be held for several life sentences, as one judge recommended, or released after a period time in jail to a hero's welcome back home, as some in the Israeli establishment expect.

He is, in some ways, already a living martyr - images of him cover the walls of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And a martyr, after all, is all a boy like Mubarak ever dreamed of being.

"He used to collect the pictures of the martyrs from the area and put them on the wall," says Mrs. Hashash. After going to three hospitals Thursday to look for her son, whom she had heard was injured, she learned the truth when she got home. By early evening, distant relatives and television crews were waiting outside. "He said, 'Someday, instead of this picture, you can put my picture up there.' "

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