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Israel Expands Its Gaza Offensive; 2 More Palestinians Reported Slain

Times Staff Writer

Defying international criticism, Israeli forces pushed into more neighborhoods in the southern Gaza Strip on Thursday as Palestinian officials here warned of a looming humanitarian crisis stemming from the 3-day-old offensive.

Two more Palestinians, including a local Hamas militant leader, were reported killed in the fighting by late Thursday when Israeli soldiers hunting for militants and weapons-smuggling tunnels swept into neighborhoods on the fringes of the densely populated Rafah refugee camp, home to about 90,000 people.

The latest casualties raised the death toll among Palestinians to at least 40 since Tuesday. Israeli troops have suffered no casualties.

By early this morning, there were signs that Israeli tanks were moving out of some areas of Rafah, but it was too soon to know whether Israel would withdraw completely. The military would say only that a redeployment was underway.

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During the campaign, at least eight Palestinians were killed Wednesday when Israeli helicopters and tanks fired toward throngs of Palestinians protesting the offensive.

The United Nations Security Council voted 14-0 on Wednesday to condemn the killing of civilians and called on Israel to halt demolition of Palestinian houses in the area. The United States, which routinely blocks resolutions critical of Israel, abstained from the vote.

As tank shells thundered and gunfire rang out, hundreds of mourners gathered Thursday to bury the eight marchers. International condemnation of Israel’s offensive offered little solace to relatives of slain demonstrators, several of whom were children.

At a small cemetery on the edge of the refugee camp, Salim Hashash was hugged by mourners near the fresh grave of his 9-year-old son, Mubarak. He dismissed the U.N. statement as mere words.

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“It’s not enough,” he said, as a cluster of onlookers nodded in agreement.

Hashash’s expression turned angry. “We want God to make revenge for us. He is the avenger.”

Israeli leaders apologized for the deaths, saying their forces did not deliberately target civilians. Israel said its forces launched a missile from a helicopter into a field nearby and fired tank shells at an abandoned building to keep the protesters away from its troops. Officials surmised that a shell passed through the building and into the crowd.

Israeli officials said that gunmen were among the marchers -- a charge the protesters denied -- and that Palestinian children should not have been in a combat zone.

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“It is the Palestinians who have turned the neighborhoods of Gaza into a battlefield, and they have only one purpose: to place children in the army’s way so they get hurt and they may use this against us,” Gideon Meir, deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry, told Israel Radio.

Israel said its offensive was aimed at destroying tunnels used to smuggle weapons into Gaza from Egypt.

The smuggling accounts for the bulk of battlefield weaponry that ends up in the hands of Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip, Israeli military officials said. The military action came after 13 Israeli soldiers were killed last week during separate incidents in the Gaza Strip. Seven were slain in Rafah.

On Thursday, the main streets of Rafah were nearly empty of cars and pedestrians. Storefronts were barricaded. Palestinian boys who dared to stand on street corners shouted warnings to drivers that Israeli tanks lay just ahead.

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All day and into the night, the Mediterranean air carried sounds of combat along with the periodic amplified calls to Muslim prayer. Thumping Israeli helicopters and unmanned drones kept vigil overhead.

Some residents of the areas raided by Israeli troops Thursday said they were trapped in their homes as soldiers, backed by tanks and bulldozers, moved through the streets.

“They are demanding for us to get out. They are shooting. How can we get out?” one resident, Mofeed Salama, said in a telephone interview from his home in a neighborhood called Brazil.

Palestinian officials said at least 25,000 people in the Tel Sultan neighborhood -- the section into which Israeli troops had swept early Tuesday -- lacked water, sewer services and electricity for a third day.

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Other residents said they were running out of food and medical supplies such as insulin. Rafah officials were scrambling to arrange water shipments through the United Nations and aid groups.

“The infrastructure is destroyed 100%. No one can drink a drop of water,” said Abu Ali Shaheen, a Palestinian legislator from Rafah who heads an emergency-management committee for the Gaza Strip.

Several Israeli human rights groups filed a petition before Israel’s Supreme Court demanding that the army restore water and power and let Palestinian ambulances carry the wounded to hospitals outside Rafah.

Activists have accused the Israeli military of cutting off the main road and preventing the injured from getting to hospitals.

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But army officials said they had allowed ambulances to pass. Delays, they said, have resulted from exchanges of gunfire and the need to clear roadside explosives planted by militants.

“We haven’t disrupted the electricity or the water,” said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “It’s a war zone.... It’s the fighting.”

Officials at Abu Yousef Annajar Hospital in Rafah said the number of casualties had overwhelmed the 50-bed facility, which lacked an intensive-care unit and had served mainly as an emergency clinic for patients on their way to the better-equipped hospitals in Khan Yunis, about 10 miles away.

By Thursday afternoon, 13 more injured had been shuttled to the Rafah hospital, bringing the total for three days to more than 150, officials said.

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The hospital director, Ali Moussa, juggled calls on three cellphones while staffers and police officers constantly showed up to convey urgent news.

At one point, a police officer burst in to report that a Palestinian home was about to be demolished with the family still inside. Moussa sighed and picked up one of his phones to call Israeli authorities.

“We cannot cope with this situation,” Moussa said. “How can we control such a situation?”


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