Tuesday, May 11, 2004

TEL AVIV — Palestinian militants blew up an Israeli armored personnel carrier in Gaza City yesterday, killing six soldiers during a pre-dawn military incursion that left at least seven Palestinians dead.

The destruction of the military vehicle and the deaths marked the heaviest blow to the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip in nearly two years and sparked renewed debate about Israel’s military role in the Gaza Strip.

The troop transport was blown apart when a roadside bomb triggered more than 220 pounds of explosive material inside the vehicle, scattering remains and vehicle parts hundreds of feet away.

Along with pictures showing militants displaying a decapitated head of one of the soldiers, Al Jazeera reported that the Palestinians hoped to negotiate with Israel over the return of the remains.

Fierce battles continued into the evening to recover the soldiers’ body parts as Hamas and Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the strike.

“Our mission is to bring our comrades to burial in Israel,” said Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, chief of the army’s southern command. “We are conducting house-to-house searches — going up to every roof and every balcony.”

Israel had sent a convoy of tanks, troop carriers and armored bulldozers to destroy two Gaza Strip metal shops thought to be manufacturing primitive rockets. The mine was detonated as the armored detachment was pulling out of the city.

The incident reopened an emotional debate among Israelis over the burden of occupying the Gaza Strip just a week after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s proposal for a unilateral withdrawal was rejected by his party.

“Today, we received a painful reminder of the heavy price we are paying for the struggle to defend our country and the security of our citizens,” Mr. Sharon said in an address to the Israeli parliament.

“We are fighting against a cruel and inhumane enemy, and we will not cease to strike at them wherever they may operate or hide.”

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian Authority had asked Gazans to turn over the remains of the soldiers for return to Israel.

But, he said, “When you have an absence of dialogue and negotiations, that’s what you get, an escalation. And it’s going to get worse.”

Since Israel’s assassination of Hamas leaders Abdel Aziz Rantisi and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Palestinian militants have been trying to strike retaliatory blows.

Likud Party members last week rejected Mr. Sharon’s proposal to abandon about 20 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, where about 7,500 Israelis live amid 1.3 million Palestinians.

But a new Tel Aviv University poll was published this week showing that about two-thirds of Israelis think that the prime minister should move ahead with the disengagement plan.

“People are beginning to ask why do they have to die and why are we doing this,” said Sam Lehman Wilzig, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.

“Every time somebody gets, killed, especially if it’s a soldier, people are asking the same question: ‘The handwriting is on wall: Why are we here?’ ”

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