- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — An explosion ripped apart an Israeli armored vehicle yesterday, reportedly killing five soldiers, in the second such attack by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip in two days. The blast came as Israel waged its biggest offensive in the territory in nearly a decade.

In all, 11 Israeli soldiers and 22 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza Strip fighting since Tuesday, and more than 175 Palestinians have been wounded.

The Israeli deaths reignited debate over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, despite its rejection by his Likud Party and fierce opposition by ultranationalist coalition partners.

Early today, Palestinian militants said they had handed over the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza City to Egyptian mediators.

Militants of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement and Islamic Jihad issued a joint statement about the release of remains of the six soldiers killed in an explosion on Tuesday, at a press conference in Gaza City.

A masked spokesman for the Martyrs Brigades said, “We have delivered the body parts to the Egyptian intelligence service in the presence of an official from the Palestinian Authority.”

He said the deal had been conditional on an Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza City’s Zeitoun district, which took place about an hour before the statement was issued.

The militant Islamic Jihad group, which has ties to Lebanese guerrillas, earlier took responsibility for yesterday’s blast on a patrol road along the Gaza-Egypt border. Israeli commentators said the fighting was increasingly reminiscent of Israel’s guerrilla war in Lebanon, which ended with Israel’s withdrawal in 2000.

Also, an Israeli helicopter today fired a missile at the Rafah refugee camp near the site of yesterday’s attack as Israeli soldiers searched the area. Medical officials said seven Palestinians were killed and four wounded.

The violence began early Tuesday with an army raid in the Zeitoun district, where troops were searching for weapons workshops. As troops moved out, an armored personnel carrier packed with explosives was torn apart by a roadside bomb. Tuesday’s blast killed six soldiers and scattered their remains across a wide radius.

Israel sent hundreds of soldiers and dozens of tanks into Zeitoun to search for the remains, some of which were displayed in the streets by Palestinian militants.

Troops confined tens of thousands of Palestinians to their homes yesterday and stormed buildings as part of the search. Tanks patrolled streets as helicopters hunting Palestinian gunmen unleashed missiles and machine-gun fire. Giant D9 bulldozers uprooted trees, crushed cars and destroyed parts of the main road and water pipes. Large parts of Gaza City were without water or electricity.

Later yesterday, another armored personnel carrier, also transporting dozens of pounds of explosives, was blown up near the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza Strip, and Arab TV stations monitored in Beirut said five soldiers were killed. The army confirmed casualties, but declined to say whether soldiers had died.

The carrier was part of a military convoy traveling on the border road between Egypt and Rafah. Islamic Jihad said it set off the explosion with a homemade missile, but Israeli sources suggested that the armored vehicle was blown up by a roadside bomb.

After the blast, residents of Rafah held up pieces of metal from the vehicle. A smoldering object, apparently the remains of a soldier, lay in a nearby field.

As gunfire crackled in the background, residents, some carrying blankets and mattresses out of their homes, prepared for Israeli reprisals. Israeli helicopters fired two missiles at the camp. No casualties were reported.

Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the group was acting as an intermediary on the return of bodies.

Before the return of bodies was announced, Israel issued a stern warning.

“Anyone who desecrates [the bodies of] soldiers, we shall catch them, and our settling of accounts with them will be bitter and precise,” Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Channel 10 TV.

Israel is known for going to great lengths to recover the bodies of fallen soldiers. Jewish law requires bodies to be buried intact, and the army fears militants will try to use the remains as bargaining chips.

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