Israeli tanks pulled out of the Gaza Strip early Friday morning, ending an incursion that began Wednesday and left 30 Palestinians dead and a trail of damaged homes, crushed cars and uprooted trees.
On the eastern edges of Gaza City’s Shaaf district, deep trenches of churned earth surrounded by newly pockmarked buildings clearly showed the path taken by an estimated 50 Israeli tanks and armored bulldozers.
“This used to be all olive and fruit trees,” said Shaaf resident Yusuf Hamad, pointing to a wide patch of barren earth.
The incursion targeted orchards used by militants for launching rockets over the border, the Israeli army said. Within hours of the tanks’ withdrawal, the military wing of Islamic Jihad launched several rockets that landed near the southern Israeli town of Sderot and wounded two children, an Israeli army spokesman said.
Three Palestinians were killed Friday, including a 13-year old boy, and a man died of wounds incurred Thursday, bringing the total toll to 30 dead and at least 75 wounded over the last three days, medical sources said.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, whose Hamas movement swept to power in January elections, delivered a Friday sermon condemning Israel’s “vindictive tendencies.” He said the goal of both Israel and the U.S. was to create “a new Middle East where Israel has dominion.”
After prayers, Haniyeh addressed a wildly cheering crowd outside amid the steady thump of Israeli artillery strikes.
He said the ongoing Israeli attacks only delayed any possible negotiations on the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Gaza-based militant groups on June 25.
“We’re eager to solve the issue of the soldier, but Israel has to withdraw first and end its aggression,” Haniyeh said.
In Shaaf, many residents returned to their homes after two days to find houses and vehicles damaged, and hundreds of trees uprooted and pushed into piles.
With dozens of militiamen lying in wait and preparing booby traps nearby, the tanks carved crude paths straight through houses, boundary walls and yards.
“There were a lot of ambushes waiting for them, so they had to take a different way,” said Allam Shuraka, whose home was taken over by Israeli troops. The soldiers used his backyard as a staging area for tanks and took over the house, punching football-sized holes in the walls for snipers.
“This was all trees, and over here was a tent that we used to sit under at night,” Shuraka said. “They took the Caterpillar and pushed everything to the side and turned the whole yard upside down.”
Shuraka and his family were asleep around 2 a.m. Wednesday when an explosion blew open the gate in the wall surrounding the property.
An armored bulldozer moved in to clear a way for the tanks, and a voice over a loudspeaker ordered the occupants to evacuate.
“They told us to get out of the house, otherwise we were responsible for our own lives,” he said. “We ran all over the place, it was chaos.”