- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip — Hundreds of Palestinians demonstrated yesterday after a five-day Israeli incursion damaged farms and buildings, but in a rare twist, their wrath was directed at Palestinian militants for inviting the move by firing rockets from their property.

Two hours after Israeli troops left, about 600 angry residents of the town of 35,000 took to the streets in a spontaneous protest, complaining that the militants caused Israel to destroy 15 houses and uproot thousands of olive, citrus and date palm trees. It was a rare outburst; most Palestinian demonstrations are aimed at Israel.

The protesters blocked a main road with trash cans, rocks and burning tires in a show of outrage against the militants. Most of the rockets are launched at towns in Israel by members of the militant Islamic movement Hamas.

The militants “claim they are heroes,” said Mohammed Zaaneen, a 30-year-old farmer, as he carried rocks into the street. “They brought us only destruction and made us homeless. They used our farms, our houses and our children … to hide.”

Israeli forces pulled back to the edge of the town, Beit Hanoun, a letup that came despite a wave of five Palestinian suicide bombings that killed 12 persons in Israel in addition to the attackers. The pullback suggested that Israel might not undertake a large-scale punitive military operation, as it has in the past, so as not to weaken the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.

But after nightfall, eight tanks and several bulldozers entered orchards outside the town and razed them to deprive rocket squads of cover, Reuters news agency reported, quoting witnesses.

Interviewed in Gaza by Israeli TV’s Channel 10, Mr. Abbas repeated his denunciation of the recent suicide attacks claimed by Muslim militants. “They sabotage the process the same as Israeli occupation sabotages the process,” he said. “The whole situation is tragic: the attacks in Israel and the destruction on our side.”

President Bush telephoned Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday. It was Mr. Bush’s first talk with Mr. Abbas and happened the same day Mr. Sharon was to have met with Mr. Bush in Washington. Mr. Sharon called off the trip because of the bombings.

Mr. Abbas was appointed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who gave in to intense international pressure to share power. But Mr. Arafat is seen by some critics as trying to cling to power and undermine Mr. Abbas, his longtime deputy.

Yesterday, Mr. Arafat issued an order removing the regional governors from the authority of the Interior Ministry to his own office, a senior Palestinian official said on the condition of anonymity. Mr. Abbas is the interior minister, and the move is seen as another attempt by Mr. Arafat to limit Mr. Abbas’ powers.

Mr. Abbas has said he will stop militants from carrying out attacks against Israel.

“We asked them to work as political parties,” Mr. Abbas said in an interview with Al-Arabiya TV broadcast yesterday. “We don’t seek clashing or a civil war.”

Israeli troops moved back to the outskirts of Beit Hanoun in northeast Gaza yesterday but held territory inside the Gaza fence, where militants often set up and fire primitive Qassam rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, about half a mile away. The small, unguided rockets have crashed into Sderot many times during the past year, causing some damage but no serious injuries.

During the Israeli takeover, eight Palestinians were killed in clashes. The dead comprised four gunmen and four teens. Three of the teens were throwing stones at Israeli tanks when they were shot by troops. Sixty-five residents were wounded, including 20 younger than 15, doctors said.

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