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Gaza Inflamed After Israeli Raid

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rage coursed through Gaza City’s overheated streets Tuesday as tens of thousands of Palestinians marched to a single mass funeral for 15 people killed in a midnight Israeli airstrike on a crowded neighborhood.

The dead included the top military commander of the militant group Hamas, who Israel said was its intended target, and nine children--among them a 2-month-old whose flag-shrouded body was held aloft by furious mourners chanting for revenge.

Many of the victims were killed as they slept in their homes. Many of the mourners, masked and dressed in battle fatigues, fired automatic weapons into the air as they thronged Gaza’s Omari Mosque and then the cemetery, all the while vowing to make Israel pay. Others wore green shrouds that symbolized their intention to become suicide bombers.

“Death to Israel! Death to America!” they shouted.

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Although threats of revenge are par for the course in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Tuesday’s emotion was different. It was the largest, and angriest, funeral in Palestinian territory in years. For Palestinians, Israel’s action--the unleashing of F-16 warplanes on a residential street--crossed a red line. It also torpedoed fledgling efforts by both sides to reduce the deadly violence of the last 22 months and unified all militant Palestinian groups arrayed against the Jewish state, including several that recently claimed they were considering a halt to attacks on Israeli civilians.

The Bush administration leveled rare criticism at the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, labeling the raid “heavy-handed.” With condemnation mounting from around the globe and, unusually, from across Israel’s political spectrum, a horrific round of renewed violence seemed all but inevitable.

“We will not rest until the Jews see pieces of bodies in each restaurant, in their bars, their buses, on their streets,” Hamas’ military wing, Izzidin al-Qassam, said in a statement.

“We will make funerals for every Jewish house, every Jewish street.”

The target of the attack, Salah Shehada, is the most senior Hamas official to be killed by Israel.

When Israel killed Hamas’ military commander in the West Bank, Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, in November, the group followed with a spate of suicide bombings a week later.

When its top bomb maker, Yehiya Ayash, was killed after Israeli agents booby-trapped his cellular phone in 1996, a wave of bombings killed dozens of people.

Israelis again braced for a round of bloodshed, but officials defended the raid, saying the killing of the founder of Hamas’ military wing was a “major success” in Israel’s war on terrorism. Israel regards Shehada as the mastermind behind scores of deadly attacks on its civilians. He was “stained with the blood of hundreds of Israelis,” a top Israeli army commander said.

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The army said it regretted the loss of innocent life but blamed Shehada’s use of “human shields.”

Most of the dead were Shehada’s neighbors, whose apartments were leveled or badly damaged when a missile from a U.S.-made F-16 hit the building where Shehada was visiting his wife and 14-year-old daughter.

The force of the blast sent shrapnel and broken concrete flying a block or more. Five apartment buildings of two to four stories sustained heavy damage.

“It was like an earthquake--no, like a nuclear bomb,” said Abdul Naem Hamada, a 28-year-old neighbor who rushed to the scene after the deafening explosion sent red and black smoke billowing.

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Omar Huweiti, 16, lay trapped in the rubble for half an hour until neighbors and medics could rescue him. The cries of the injured and dying filled the dust-choked air.

“We saw shrapnel and concrete falling on our heads,” Omar said. “We tried to call for help.”

Omar was hit in the back and foot and was recovering at Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital. But two of his cousins, 5-year-old Mohammed and 4-year-old Subhi, were killed, along with their mother, Mona Huweiti. They were found on the floor of their bedroom, crushed by concrete pillars, Omar said.

Huweiti’s husband, Mahmoud, was seriously hurt. He lay in a hospital bed, his legs, arms and face covered with cuts.

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“I was sleeping, and the sound woke me up,” he said, speaking with difficulty as he recalled the hours of terror. It was dark, and the electricity and phones were out as his small home’s corrugated metal roof, and then the walls, toppled.

“I heard my daughter crying, ‘Help me, Dad. Help me, Dad.’ I tried to help her, but I couldn’t reach her.”

The daughter, 10-year-old Iman, survived. Her head wrapped in a bloodied bandage, she sat with three injured brothers in the hospital. Six-year-old Khamis’ face was bruised and swollen, the crown of his head also bandaged.

Residents of the neighborhood insisted that no one knew that Shehada was frequenting their street. His family had taken refuge there only within the last 10 days to two weeks, residents said.

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They all held the United States as responsible as Israel for the attack.

Within hours of the raid, youths had used red spray paint to adorn the cracked, crumbled ruins with graffiti, in English for the benefit of the descending hordes of foreign journalists: “This is the American weapon,” and “This is the Israeli peace.”

“Let Sharon and America be happy!” an older woman cried as she picked her way through what was left of her home.

In the four-story apartment building belonging to the Saeedy family, about 50 yards from the site of the blast, every window was blown out, walls were punched with holes and appliances thrown to the floor.

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No one was killed, but 25 children were hospitalized with injuries, the family said. Khaled Saeedy’s collection of birds, about 80 gray-brown finches and green parakeets, lay dead, the bodies scattered amid the debris.

Just behind the building where Shehada was killed, the blast peeled away the facade of the Matar family home, exposing upturned furniture and disheveled mattresses. Six members of the extended family were killed, including 2-month-old Dina; her 11-year-old brother; and her three cousins, ages 5, 4 and 18 months.

“The world sees this and does nothing!” wailed Nabila Khattab, 47, a neighbor.

The chaotic funeral procession left Shifa Hospital and headed to the mosque, filling the streets with gunmen, mourners and cars blaring their horns. Young boys clambered onto the backs of pickup trucks or clung to the sides of vans to join in. Hamas fighters marched side by side with masked, well-armed guerrillas from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia affiliated with the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. A sea of green, red, yellow, white and black flags, representing every militant stripe, followed.

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Three wooden coffins in green shrouds were hoisted through the crowd to the mosque, followed by bodies wrapped in Palestinian flags and shuttled through on litters.

The 2-month-old girl was carried by a male relative, who in turn was carried on the shoulders of other men. He held the dark-haired baby aloft in his outstretched arms, like a sacrificial offering. She was wrapped in a Palestinian flag. A tiny arm, fist clenched, dangled from her swaddling.

As she passed by, the frenzied chants of revenge and martyrdom hit a fevered pitch, with men screaming on loudspeakers and guns exploding.

“Our reaction will be very harsh,” said a masked commander of the Hamas military wing, who was leading a unit in the procession. “We are on a jihad path, to victory or martyrdom. We will not stop as long as blood flows in our veins.”

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Funeral organizers said the bodies of Shehada, his wife, their daughter and Shehada’s bodyguard were so shredded that they had to place the remains in a single coffin.

Shehada--a veteran of Israeli prisons and mentioned as a possible successor to Hamas’ supreme leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin--had been living underground for months and only occasionally surfaced to visit his family. Israel’s security forces had been after him for years.

Israel said Shehada had orchestrated a string of attacks on civilians in Israel, including suicide bombings at a discotheque and pizzeria, as well as assaults on Jewish settlers and soldiers inside the Gaza Strip.

On Tuesday at midday, a grim Yassin visited the site where Shehada was killed, viewing the destruction, and later attended the mass funeral. Aides and gunmen whisked the wheelchair-bound spiritual leader through the crowd.

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“The revenge,” Yassin told reporters, “will be impossible to describe.”


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