Twelve killed as Israeli army seeks its dead

ISRAELI forces killed 12 Palestinians, most of them civilians, during an incursion into the southern Gaza Strip yesterday which the army said was aimed at retrieving soldiers’ body parts.

The armoured incursion backed by helicopter gunships in the Rafah refugee camp, the site of an ambush on Wednesday that killed five soldiers, was still under way last night. It was the second operation mounted by Israel this week with the stated reason of locating parts of corpses of soldiers.

Citing religious traditions, the need to impress soldiers of the army’s commitment to them, and family sensitivities, army officials said last night that body parts must be recovered even if it endangers troops. But the operations are also causing Palestinian civilian casualties and widespread damage.

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"When soldiers see the effort we are making, they know they have the full backing of the Israel defence forces to rescue them or retrieve their remains and bring them to a dignified burial," said Captain Jacob Dallal, an army spokesman.

Eleven Israeli soldiers and 28 Palestinians have died in fighting since Tuesday. It began when Israeli troops occupied a Gaza City neighbourhood in what the army said was a bid to destroy workshops for manufacturing rockets. More than 150 Palestinians have been wounded thus far, according to hospital tallies.

The large number of Israeli fatalities, unusual for the Gaza fighting, mark the biggest blow to the army in two years. The high death toll comes amid political deadlock triggered by Likud party members’ rejection of a proposal by the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, for a unilateral pull-back from Gaza.

Israeli actor Shlomo Vishinsky, whose son Lior died in the Rafah ambush, yesterday blamed his death on the government. "It is unthinkable that the majority of this nation wants to leave Gaza and that because of Likud members we have to stay there," he said.

Israel’s vice-premier, Ehud Olmert, said yesterday that Mr Sharon was intent on simultaneously "fighting terror unhaltingly" and "completing the political effort to disengage from areas that are not necessary and helpful".

"We have to make a reasonable effort and take a reasonable risk to find the bodies of the soldiers," added Yuval Steinitz, the chairman of the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defence committee. "This is our duty to the dead soldiers and their families."

But Azmi Bishara, an Arab member of the Knesset, condemned the operations. "Israel’s leadership is sacrificing not only the soldiers but Palestinian youths and women to irrational beliefs and to political cynicism," he said. "They are behaving like a mystic cult. They are not driven by rationality at all."

Israeli authorities barred correspondents from entering the Gaza Strip yesterday, citing concerns over their safety.

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All but one of the Palestinians killed yesterday in Rafah refugee camp was struck by shrapnel from missiles fired from helicopters, witnesses said. One of the dead was a boy of 15. An army official said helicopter gunships fired missiles at gunmen firing at or endangering troops involved in the effort "to locate and save the [soldiers’s] corpses". Residents of Rafah said that seven of those killed were civilians.

Israeli forces pulled out of the Zaitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City yesterday, where six soldiers died in an ambush on Tuesday after Egyptian mediation led to the retrieval of body parts. The army said its forces had also recovered some body parts during the operation.

The Islamic Jihad group yesterday held a funeral for Fawzi Madhoun, the fighter whom it says blew up the Israeli vehicle, announcing over loudspeakers that its forces had forced Israel to "retreat".

Militants had touched off anger in Israel on Tuesday by displaying what they said were body parts of the slain soldiers. The Palestinian official news agency WAFA said that among four corpses recovered from rubble in Zaitoun after the Israeli withdrawal was that of a 14-year-old boy.

Destruction was widespread. Israeli forces detonated an eight-storey building situated across from the ambush site on Wednesday night just before the pull-out. Two neighbouring eight-storey buildings were badly damaged.

The owner of the buildings, Salman Haji, 55, said troops beat his son during a search and forced him and his family out of the detonated building, shooting above them as they fled to a nearby building.

Mr Haji said he had not known about the ambush of the soldiers until yesterday, adding: "When I found out I was happy because it compensated me for all I have lost."

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