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Gaza Deaths Spark Anger and Debate

Palestinians bury their dead vowing vengeance. In Israel, dispute revives over 'targeted killings.'

October 22, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

NUSSEIRAT REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip — When the Israeli missile rocked a crumbling and cramped street here, Dr. Zein al Abidin Shahin didn't stop to think. He rushed from the government clinic where he was working the night shift, his colleagues said, and raced down the block to help.

Then another missile fell and sent a chunk of shrapnel flying toward Shahin's head, doctors here said. An hour later, the 29-year-old physician was dead.

Amid machine-gun blasts and hoarse cries for revenge, tens of thousands of mourners in this rundown refugee camp buried seven of their own Tuesday, a day after the missile strikes. Traditional Arab mourning tents stretched for blocks, and anger was thick in their shadows.

"We have no tanks, no airplanes, no anything," said Masoud Ali Hasan, the clinic director. "It's like we are not human. When we are killed, we are like donkeys."

Palestinians and Israelis gave conflicting versions -- both backed by evidence -- of the airstrikes at Nusseirat, the bloodiest in a series of five air assaults on the Gaza Strip on Monday that killed at least 10 Palestinians and wounded 100 more, including schoolchildren.

Palestinian witnesses said Israel fired a missile into a passing car, which drew a crowd of civilians into the street. Then an Apache helicopter overhead fired another missile, the Palestinian witnesses said, injuring the bystanders.

Israeli military spokeswoman Sharon Feingold said Israel targeted militants in the car, and rejected outright the notion that a missile was fired into a crowd.

"It's ludicrous at best and a blatant lie," she said Tuesday night. "It's hard to explain how these people were injured. We're not saying there weren't people injured, and we regret that very much."

In the first hours after the strikes, the military said it would investigate, and apologize if necessary. Hours later, the government released a video showing two missiles hitting a car on what appears to be a nearly empty road.

The video, however, did not clear up the questions. Witnesses recalled two missiles, but Palestinian security service sources said three missiles were fired into the Nusseirat street.

An unmanned Israeli plane continued to record the scene after the second missile was fired, Feingold said, but that footage was not released to reporters. Israel couldn't risk revealing sensitive intelligence material, she said, adding, "We have nothing to hide."

Tuesday's funeral marches began at the morgue, and made their raucous way through the hot streets, tens of thousands strong. "We'll keep fighting forever!" the mourners cried. Little boys toted toy M-16s hammered from plywood and rusting nails; men wore masks and waved real guns toward the sky.

The bodies were taken to a mosque for a final prayer and carried into the graveyard. On the entry, verses from the Koran read: "There is no time for happiness. Nor even time to trust."

Iman Lavoini, a 21-year-old nurse in Shahin's clinic, grieved for the slain doctor Tuesday. "He left his family and came down here to work, and he never got to go back home -- that's what really gets to us," he said. Shahin is survived by his wife and their 4-year-old son.

"You can tell your people in America that they bomb us every day with American Apaches," snapped another physician, Jihad Hamed. "America is punishing us."

The Gaza funerals took place on the same day that Israeli soldier Roi Yaakov Solomon, 21, was buried in the town of Hulon, near Tel Aviv. He was one of three soldiers whom Palestinians killed Sunday in an ambush near Ramallah in the West Bank.

Feingold said only one of Monday's five airstrikes in Gaza was planned in advance. The rest, she said, were provoked by events on the ground.

Israel said the attack on Nusseirat began when four Palestinians approached the fence that separates Gaza from Israel. Two of the men breached the fence and entered Israel, where they were shot dead by Israeli soldiers, she said. As their two companions drove back toward the refugee camp, the Israeli helicopter gunship tracked them from above and fired.

Israel's Maariv newspaper derided the missile strikes as a "blitz." But on Tuesday, Uzi Landau, a lawmaker with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ruling Likud Party, dismissed the domestic critics as "fools among us."

The news that dozens of civilians were killed or hurt revived the painful topic of "targeted killings" among Israelis, sparking one of the most serious episodes of debate over the use of force since the onset of the Palestinian uprising three years ago.

"We have deteriorated to a point in which we have stopped asking questions," analyst Alex Fishman wrote in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper. "How long can we hurt innocent civilians? Is it conceivable that somebody on our side has decided that all of Palestinian society is the target?"

Such questions have long been part of Israeli politics, but they have taken on a new openness and intensity in recent weeks, as peace talks have fallen silent and bloodshed continues.

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