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PEACE STEPS IN MIDEAST

Israeli Tanks Leave Ruins and Anger in Their Wake

Palestinians take control around Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip. Families return to wrecked homes and devastated fields.

July 01, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip -- The morning after Israeli tanks crunched out of the Gaza Strip in the first step to implement the latest U.S.-backed peace plan, Palestinian families returned Monday to wrecked homes and flattened orange groves.

Israelis abandoned this sleepy farming hamlet Sunday, and the battered remains of the Palestinian security forces rolled in to reclaim the region.

Palestinians awoke to the ruin left by weeks of occupation. They found factories and houses toppled by bulldozers and crushed by tanks. Instead of the famous fruit groves, there were sun-scorched fields, littered with dried roots and torn tree stumps. Telephone and electrical wires were broken.

"I feel like I was born today," said Wael Basyoni, who found his house demolished. "I don't have anything."

The withdrawal was a down payment on the U.S.-sponsored "road map" that aims to end the 33-month Palestinian uprising, bring peace to the region and establish a Palestinian state.

Israel retreated from Gaza even as ongoing bloodshed revealed cracks in a cease-fire declared this week by Palestinian militants. Israel also loosened travel restrictions on Palestinians and turned over control of the road that forms the spine of the coastal strip.

Workers who had been forced to use bypass roads, negotiate harsh checkpoints and even trek along the beach drove triumphantly along the major north-south artery once again.

Despite doubts on both sides about long-term prospects for the plan, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon planned to meet today with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, to discuss an expected Israeli withdrawal from Bethlehem.

To the consternation of Palestinians, Israeli soldiers still manned tanks and observation towers on hills to guard Israeli settlements and key junctions. Despite pomp and handshakes, Palestinian officers were already fretting that Israel hadn't pulled out of the Gaza Strip as completely as they'd hoped.

At the mention of the Israeli pullout, a Palestinian intelligence officer pointed to the horizon, where an Israeli tank was outlined against the sky.

"We call it a redeployment," he said. "We demand a complete withdrawal."

Goats plodded in the flattened remains of the national security office, and little boys scrounged for makeshift toys in the blasted intelligence headquarters. In the shade of a canopy on the edges of Beit Hanoun, the Palestinian intelligence officer sprawled on the ground. He and his colleagues used to have an office, he said -- and a purpose.

"Now we have this tent," said the agent, who declined to give his name. "We still don't know what to do. We're just sitting around here, waiting."

Beit Hanoun had been clamped under siege because Israelis were desperate to suppress the firing of missiles at nearby Jewish settlements. The Israeli army said it had to flatten the land around Beit Hanoun to strip militants of cover.

Already, nervous Israeli lawmakers were calling for Palestinian authorities to launch an assault on militant networks.

More Bloodshed

Despite the cease-fire by the major Palestinian armed groups, bloodshed continued.

This morning, Israeli troops fatally shot a Palestinian who fired a pistol at soldiers manning a checkpoint in the northern West Bank, the army said, between Tulkarm and Kalkilya.

On Monday, a Bulgarian worker was killed when militants who were apparently rebel members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade staged an ambush near the West Bank town of Jenin.

This attack was a harsh reminder of the fractures within Al Aqsa, the loosely organized military wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah party -- and of the difficulty of an absolute cease-fire by a people seething from months of killings.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops dismantled checkpoints on the road that runs south from the gateway to Israel down to Egypt. After bulldozers roared over the broken road, shoving aside mounds of sand and rubble, Palestinian troops positioned themselves in makeshift shelters. They perched on the ruins of their headquarters, crouched in the shade of abandoned filling stations and leaned wearily against telephone poles, AK-47s trained on the ground.

At the Netzarim junction, police in sunglasses and berets placed a framed portrait of Arafat in their tent and set about manning the roadblock.

But they worked under the eye of an Israeli observation post, and an important part of the job appeared to be halting Palestinian traffic so that Israeli settlers could pass. Every so often, Israeli settlers aboard armored buses drew close to the intersection, flanked by Israeli army jeeps.

At the sight of a settler caravan, Israeli soldiers called radio commands to the Palestinians. The Palestinian guards hauled barricades into the road and let Palestinian traffic idle while the settlers sailed through.

"We're interested in seeing no Israelis here at all," said Khalid Hejazi, a Palestinian teacher who mopped sweat from his face as the settlers crossed. "We don't have much trust in the other side."

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