GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – A powerful explosion ripped apart an Israeli armored vehicle Wednesday, reportedly killing five soldiers, in the second such attack by Palestinian militants in Gaza in two days — as Israel waged its biggest offensive there in nearly a decade.
In all, 11 Israeli soldiers and 14 Palestinians were killed in Gaza fighting Tuesday and Wednesday, and more than 175 Palestinians were wounded.
The Israeli deaths reignited an emotional debate over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza, despite a veto by his Likud Party and fierce opposition by ultranationalist coalition partners.
The militant Islamic Jihad group, which has close ties to Lebanese guerrillas, claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s blast, on a patrol road along the Gaza-Egypt border. Israeli commentators said the fighting in Gaza was increasingly reminiscent of Israel’s guerrilla war in Lebanon that ended with a withdrawal in 2000.
Early Thursday, Israeli forces began pulling out of Gaza City, Israel Radio reported, completing their search for parts of the bodies of six soldiers killed in a huge explosion in an armored vehicle on Tuesday.
Residents also said soldiers and vehicles were leaving the Zeitoun neighborhood.
The Gaza conflagration began early Tuesday with a routine army raid in the Zeitoun district of Gaza City, with troops searching for weapons workshops. As troops moved out, an armored personnel carrier packed with explosives was torn apart by a roadside bomb. Tuesday’s blast scattered the remains of the six soldiers across a wide radius.
Israel sent hundreds of soldiers and dozens of tanks into Zeitoun in search of remains, some of which had been displayed in the streets by Palestinian militants.
Troops confined tens of thousands of Palestinians to their homes Wednesday and stormed buildings as part of the search. Tanks patrolled streets as helicopters hunting Palestinian gunmen unleashed missiles and machine gun fire. House-sized D9 bulldozers uprooted trees, crushed cars and destroyed parts of the main road and water pipes. Large parts of Gaza City were without water or electricity.
Later Wednesday, another armored personnel carrier, also transporting dozens of kilograms (pounds) of explosives, was blown up near the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza, and Arab TV stations monitored in Beirut said five soldiers were killed. The army confirmed casualties, but declined to say whether soldiers had been killed.
The carrier was part of a military convoy traveling on the border road between Egypt and Rafah. Islamic Jihad said it set off the explosion with a homemade missile, while Israeli sources suggested the armored vehicle was blown up by a roadside bomb.
Following the blast, residents of Rafah held up pieces of metal from the vehicle. A smoldering object, apparently the remains of a soldier, lay in a nearby field.
As gunfire crackled in the background, residents, some carrying blankets and mattresses out of their homes, prepared for Israeli reprisals. Israeli helicopters fired two missiles at the camp.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt urged Palestinian militants to hand over missing body parts from some of the six soldiers killed Tuesday. Defiant militants said there would be no release until Israel pulled its troops out of Gaza City.
Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the group was acting as an intermediary. He declined to say whether any progress was made. However, after the second attack on an armored personnel carrier, it appeared unlikely a deal would be struck soon.
Israel said it would not negotiate with the militants and vowed to continue its operation until it recovers the bodies.
“Anyone who desecrates (the bodies of) soldiers, we shall catch them, and our settling of accounts with them will be bitter and precise,” Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Channel 10 TV.
However, a Palestinian official involved in contacts said an agreement was worked out under which Israel would pull its forces out of Gaza City overnight, and militants would hand over the missing remains. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said at a later stage Israel would devise a mechanism for returning bodies of Palestinian militants it is holding.
Israel is known for going to great lengths to recover the bodies of fallen soldiers, both because Jewish law requires the entire body to be buried, where possible, and because the army fears militants will try to use remains as bargaining chips.
Despite the fact that some of the corpses were incomplete, the army on Wednesday night said pathologists had managed to positively identify all six, and four would be buried on Thursday. Army Radio said that with the bodies cleared for burial, the military might wind down its search for the missing parts.
In the past, soldiers killed in action and identified have been buried as soon as possible, and parts recovered afterward were interred with the bodies later. Rabbi Israel Weiss, the chief army chaplain, said that would be the practice this time, as well.
Israel has carried out a number of lopsided prisoner deals. Most recently, it exchanged hundreds of Arab prisoners in January for the remains of three soldiers and a captured businessman.
In Wednesday’s fighting in Gaza City, six Palestinians were killed and more than 60, most of them civilians, were wounded. Residents said one of the dead was a civilian trying to fix a water tank on the roof of his house when he was hit by helicopter fire.
The army controlled a five-square-kilometer area (two square miles) of the city, Palestinians said. Dozens of armored vehicles patrolled deserted streets, snipers took up positions on rooftops and Apache helicopters hovered overhead, firing occasional bursts of gunfire.
Saed Abdullah, a 45-year-old father of six who lives near the site of Tuesday’s explosion, said he and his children had spent hours hiding under beds as bullets shattered windows and destroyed furniture.
Soldiers stormed the house, locking the family into a room for more than five hours, Abdullah said. Then they took him and two other neighbors and used them as “human shields” as they searched the neighborhood, he said. Using Palestinians as shields is illegal according to Israeli Supreme Court rulings.
The operation in Gaza City was the largest since September 1996, when Israel sent hundreds of tanks and other vehicles into Gaza to put down riots that erupted after Israel opened a tunnel near holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. At least 73 people were killed on both sides in armed clashes that lasted more than a week in the West Bank and Gaza.