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Palestinians Recount Deadly Raid

An Israeli tank shelled a crowd as troops were leaving a Gazan camp after a strike, witnesses say. The army disputes the account.

March 07, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip — Looking out his second-story window, Palestinian dentist Mohammed Eid could hardly believe his eyes. Just below, a crowd of people -- Palestinian firefighters who were trying to put out a ferocious blaze in a ground-floor furniture shop, neighbors who were helping out with water buckets from their kitchens, a knot of curious onlookers including teenagers and younger children -- suddenly scattered in panic, leaving an arc of maimed and bloodied bodies in the street.

According to dozens of Palestinian eyewitnesses, an Israeli tank fired a shell directly into the crowd early Thursday as Israeli troops were withdrawing from a strike on the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. Eight people died in the sand-strewn street in front of the furniture store, in addition to three killed in the camp raid, and 140 others were hurt, according to hospital officials.

The Israeli army sharply disputed the Palestinian accounts of Thursday's raid. It said that an Israeli tank had returned fire after a Palestinian militant shot a rocket-propelled grenade at it, but that this had occurred on a street parallel to where the furniture store was located, and the crowd was not in the tank's line of fire.

"Every care was taken not to have people injured, certainly not bystanders," said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an army spokesman. "However, there was heavy, heavy fighting going on in the area."

Israeli officials also denied that Thursday's raid was in retaliation for a bus bombing in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa a day earlier that killed 15 people and injured scores of others, describing it instead as part of an ongoing campaign against "terrorist infrastructure" in the Gaza Strip.

Early today, Israeli tanks again massed outside Jabaliya, after Palestinian militants fired off a volley of homemade rockets at Jewish settlements in Gaza and Israeli towns bordering the strip. The rockets caused no injuries or damage.

In recent weeks, Gaza has been the scene of increasingly chaotic fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen. Much of it has taken place in densely populated urban areas, pushing the civilian casualty count into the dozens and twice this week drawing unusual rebukes from the White House.

"The president is very concerned about action ... that would affect or harm innocent Palestinians," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher said Thursday.

Thursday's raid, the third this week in Gaza, was waged in line with what has become a familiar scenario.

Tanks moved in for a sudden predawn assault while combat helicopters juddered overhead and tracer bullets lighted the night sky. Israeli snipers burst into apartments of sleeping Palestinian families to seize the strategic high places; Palestinian gunmen, urged on by calls from the neighborhood mosques, poured into the streets with AK-47s in hand.

As is typical in such raids, troops destroyed a Hamas militant's family home, a low-slung concrete structure set in an orange grove on the camp's edge. The family patriarch, a Hamas supporter, was taken away for questioning.

But this time, as the troops were beginning to withdraw about 5 a.m. from the camp -- a teeming enclave of about 90,000 people that is considered a stronghold of militant groups -- something went wrong. Just after crossing from the camp's boundaries into the Jabaliya township, an Israeli tank ran over a powerful explosive laid in its path and was partially disabled, according to Palestinian witnesses.

Hours later, a long, snakelike tread from a tank or armored personnel carrier could be seen splayed on the main street leading out of Jabaliya. Small, ragged Palestinian boys were playing atop it, elbowing one another out of the way.

According to neighbors and paramedics, a raging fire, which they said was apparently set off by shelling, broke out in the furniture store as the Israeli troops were pulling out along the road by which they had entered. Israel said the fire was started by the same blast that damaged an armored vehicle.

Alerted by cries of alarm, and by frantic cell phone calls from the single extended family occupying the four-story apartment house above the store, Palestinian firefighters arrived at the scene and began trying to douse the blaze with hoses.

Terrified that the flames would ravage the entire neighborhood of closely packed homes, neighbors ran to the scene with water carried in whatever receptacles they could find -- plastic buckets, pitchers, garbage pails. Children, kept inside by their parents during the fighting, came out to gawk at the spectacle.

A heavy explosion then came without warning, Palestinian witnesses said.

"I never want to see anything like this again -- I saw bodies blown to pieces before my very eyes," said Fayez Salah, 37, who was in the crowd when the blast hit. His family, now homeless, had lived above the furniture store.

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