Thursday, May 13, 2004

TEL AVIV — Dozens of Israeli soldiers sifted through the Gaza sands on all fours yesterday seeking the remains of five comrades whose armored vehicle was blown up Wednesday.

Back in Israel, a debate escalated over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for a unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip.

Israeli helicopters providing cover for the search-and-rescue mission near the Egyptian border fired missiles in response to gun and rocket fire from the Rafah refugee neighborhood, killing 11 Palestinians and injuring 29.

In a rare gesture, Egypt allowed Israeli soldiers to cross the border in order to hunt for body parts that were hurled across a boundary wall by Wednesday’s blast.

Israel’s army has suffered its worst two-day casualty total since the uprising began in September 2000, losing 11 soldiers in two separate attacks on armored personnel carriers in Gaza.

The painful blows are giving voice to the previously silent majority of Israelis who support pulling out of the territory.

In a rare broadside against the government from the father of one of the soldiers killed Wednesday, Shlomo Vishinsky urged Mr. Sharon to go ahead with his withdrawal plan even though it was rejected by the ruling Likud Party in a May 2 referendum.

“Most of the people don’t want to be there. If in a democratic country we don’t listen to the majority, then it’s not a country,” Mr. Vishinsky said.

His son Leor had been on a mission to find and blow up tunnels used to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip when his vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, detonating more than a ton of explosives inside.

“Maybe I will be able to save a few soldiers and mothers. I believe the Israeli army could destroy Gaza in three days, but we are not going to because we are human beings. So give [the Palestinians] a chance to exist, and give me also my children.”

Funerals for five of the Israeli soldiers killed Tuesday morning in the Gaza City neighborhood of Zeitoun were held yesterday after Egyptian and Palestinian interlocutors persuaded militants to return body parts that had been held for more than a day.

Meanwhile, Palestinian residents of the neighborhood surveyed the wreckage left behind by the Israeli soldiers. Four buildings were destroyed while dozens were severely damaged, the Associated Press reported.

The main road was ripped up and flooded with sewage.

The effective use of land mines and light artillery against the Israeli soldiers recalled Hezbollah’s guerrilla war against Israel’s occupation of a narrow strip of land in southern Lebanon.

Israel has sustained relatively few casualties along that border since pulling out four years ago, encouraging some to call for the same course of action in Gaza.

“The Gaza Strip isn’t Lebanon,” warned Army Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon as he attempted to answer those arguments. About 1.3 million Palestinians live alongside 7,500 Jewish settlers in the coastal Gaza Strip.

At a roadside rest stop just north of the Gaza border, a group of reserve army engineers about to start a month’s tour of duty inside the territory concurred with the army chief’s assessment. Gaza, they said, is much worse.

“It’s the same type of fighting, but here every civilian can shoot,” said Robert, a 27-year old electrical engineer who, under military regulations, could not give his last name.

“There are no victors here. There are only bodies and that’s it.”

Rising criticism of the Gaza occupation has given momentum to a mass demonstration being planned for tomorrow evening by a coalition of Israeli peace groups.

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