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Palestinians Return to Scenes of Ruin

Special to The Times

From Saturday’s earliest light, they looked to salvage a schoolbook here, a cooking pan there, a dust-choked quilt or a shattered picture frame.

Hours after Israeli troops’ pullback Friday night from a densely populated swath of the northern Gaza Strip, Palestinians who had fled the fighting 17 days earlier ventured back to their homes -- or in some cases, what had been their homes.

Human rights groups said about 80 houses had been destroyed during the fighting in and near the Jabaliya refugee camp, a sprawling slum of more than 100,000 people.

“There is not much left here for us,” murmured a weeping, 58-year-old woman who identified herself as Umm Mohi el din Yehiyah. She, along with neighbors, had come to root through the ruins of her home in the eastern sector of Jabaliya, hit hard in the first wave of the incursion.

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Israeli troops and tanks flooded a section of northern Gaza after two preschoolers in the southern Israeli town of Sderot were killed Sept. 29, when Palestinian militants fired a volley of homemade rockets from the seaside territory.

More than 110 Palestinians were killed in the incursion, the largest in Gaza since the eruption of the current conflict, now in its fifth year. The Islamic militant group Hamas said Saturday that about 40 of the dead were members of its military wing.

Israel came under heavy international criticism for the Gaza offensive. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others questioned whether it had been a disproportionate response to Palestinian fighters’ use of crude Kassam rockets.

Israeli officials have been careful to describe Friday’s troop movement as a redeployment rather than a withdrawal. Soldiers and armor took up positions on high ground inside the Gaza Strip, while others moved just across the border, ready to rumble in again on short notice.

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Following a pattern that has prevailed since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his intention to withdraw troops and settlers from Gaza, both sides tried not to appear defeated.

“We are determined not to leave Gaza under a hail of Kassam fire,” said Raanan Gissin, a senior advisor to Sharon. Gissin and other Sharon aides said Israel would reenter northern Gaza if the homemade projectiles were fired again.

Palestinian officials denounced the offensive. “It is part of an attempt ... to bring our people to their knees,” Prime Minister Ahmed Korei told reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. “This, of course, will never happen.”

Spearheaded by tanks and armored bulldozers, the Israeli incursion left a trail of destruction: collapsed cement-block houses, burst pipes spraying precious water, dangling electrical wires. Some buildings were pocked with hundreds of bullet holes.

Israeli officials said the pullback was due in part to sensitivities associated with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began Friday.

Some Israeli analysts interpreted the Gaza offensive as a means for Sharon to shore up his backing. The prime minister, a onetime patron of the settlement movement, has angered former allies with his pullout initiative. On Oct. 25, Israel’s parliament, known as the Knesset, will vote on the plan to uproot 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four small enclaves in the northern West Bank.

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Times staff writer King reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Abu Shammalah from Jabaliya.

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