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Clashes in Gaza leave dozens dead

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip—The bodies arrived one after another on the shoulders of a seemingly endless river of mourners. One was a small boy weighing no more than 60 pounds, tightly encased in a green Hamas flag. Another was only pieces, placed in a box and hustled down the street on a stretcher.

Spatters of blood stained the white shroud of a third lying on the floor of an unfinished mosque.

"It is a massacre," Mohammad Hamad, 26, a doctor from the town hospital, said as mourners carried another body into the mosque. "This is the worst thing that has happened to Beit Hanoun."

Palestinians in this small farming town emerged from their homes Tuesday to bury their friends and relatives after the deadliest week in the Gaza Strip since Israel pulled its military out of the area 13 months ago.

Palestinian medical officials said that at least 20 Palestinian civilians were among the 62 people killed during the six-day military operation, which Israel staged to combat the persistent threat of rudimentary rockets fired by Palestinian militants into southern Israel. About 40 of the dead were militants. One Israeli soldier died.

Because it's one of the closest towns to the Israeli border, Beit Hanoun is a major militant launching pad. More than a third of the 800 Qassam rockets fired into Israel over the past year were shot from the town, according to the Israeli military.

The Israeli army, in announcing its departure from Beit Hanoun, said the campaign had met its goals by destroying rocket launchers, hitting dozens of militants and capturing caches of weapons.

But even as the tanks pulled back, Palestinians fired five rockets into Israel. They caused little damage, but made it clear that the latest operation hadn't neutralized the danger.

"I don't know what message Israel is trying to give, but certainly such incursions will not help in bringing quiet," said Khaled Abdel Shafi, the head of the United Nations Development Program's Gaza operation, as he stood outside the mosque. "It will deepen the hate."

The Israeli military conceded that civilians were caught up in the battles, but accused Palestinian militants of using residents as human shields.

"In a situation where militants operate from within population centers and schools and mosques, then sometimes the outcome is not a very positive one for civilians," said Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman. "This is the price civilians pay for the militants' activity."

Israel has been trying for months to prevent Palestinian militants from firing rockets into the country. The attacks haven't been very accurate; the last time a Palestinian rocket killed an Israeli was 15 months ago. They're a constant reminder, however, that Israel's decision to shutter its Gaza settlements last summer hasn't led to a new era of calm.

The latest operation, which began last Wednesday, ravaged parts of Beit Hanoun. Muddy tank treads cut wide paths through orchards and roads. The stench of sewage from broken pipes drifted through neighborhoods. Families sifted through the rubble of their demolished homes.

In one of the more contentious steps, Israel opened fire last Friday as dozens of unarmed women streamed toward one of the town's mosques to try to help cornered militants escape. Two women were killed and the mosque was destroyed. The militants were able to flee.

Near the ruins of the mosque, members of the Nasil family baked flat bread Tuesday on a small wood-fed stove in the ruins of their living room, now fully exposed to the street.

As fighting had raged just up the street, the family members had sought shelter in a nearby clinic. When they returned, the front of the house was gone. "It was hell," Fadil Nasil said.

Brothers Yassir and Hikmat Hamad stood in the ruins of their tangerine and olive orchards. Israeli tanks and bulldozers arrived last Wednesday, they said, and plowed under their 2 { acres. Soldiers ordered them to stay inside, while Israeli snipers took control of rooftops nearby.

When members of the Hamad family emerged Tuesday morning, they discovered that all 100 of their ducks and 50 rabbits had been plowed under along with their trees.

This was the second time that an Israeli incursion had leveled the Hamad brothers' fields. The first time came several years ago, when the Israeli military still held bases in Gaza. Afterward, the family replanted its fruit trees and tried to rebuild.

The brothers said they'd tried to steer clear of politics and had even pulled out their guns three months ago to chase away militants who were trying to launch rockets from their orchards.

"We don't want rockets. We don't want militants," said Yassir, who's 48. "We just want peace."

But now, with their farm destroyed, the brothers said they weren't likely to try to stop the militants again.

"After this, there's nothing left," said Hikmat, 49.

His brother added: "If they want to launch, let them launch. I don't care anymore."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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