The killing of at least 10 Palestinian demonstrators
and the wounding of many others by Israeli forces in Rafah in the southern Gaza
strip Wednesday increased domestic and international pressure on the government
of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to end the military operation in the
In Rafah a senior representative of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant
offshoot of the Fatah movement, promised revenge for what he called a massacre.
"We will give an answer inside Tel Aviv, in the settlements anywhere inside
the (Israeli) borders," said a commander of the group who called himself Abu
He was speaking in a field outside a potato refrigerator that has been used
for the last two days to keep the bodies of people killed in the Israeli operation.
The hospital morgue in Rafah can only accommodate 12 bodies.
Moments earlier a crying father, Tareq Mansour, had pushed his way into the
cold-storage space while others tried to hold him back. He went into the freezer
and picked up the body of his 14 year-old son Mahmoud from the bodies on the
cardboard covered floor.
He took his son wrapped in a blanket outside and kissed him. Then he put the
body back inside, sat there for a while and said goodbye.
Another man cried uncontrollably after seeing his best friend Fuad Sega wrapped
in a bloodstained shroud on the refrigerator floor. Sega was 32 and his wife
was pregnant, the friend said.
They were killed in a demonstration in which an estimated 2,000 people participated.
The demonstration was intended to protest the Israeli army operation in the
Tel al-Sultan neighborhood of Rafah.
The demonstrators marched from the centre of Rafah down the Bahr street towards
Well before reaching the Israeli tank that blocked access to the area, a helicopter
gunship launched a missile that landed in front of the first line of protesters.
Most victims seem to have been hit by shrapnel and debris.
The Israeli army later issued a statement saying that masked men carrying anti-tank
weapons had been spotted among the crowd. Pictures taken by Palestinian TV show
unarmed demonstrators marching past Zoroub Square near Tel al-Sultan and then
running back in panic.
In Bahr Street trails of blood could be seen leading from Zoroub Square to
where the missile hit. Eyewitnesses denied there were any armed men among the
crowd, and said that the large majority of the demonstrators were children.
From a nearby Israeli army position where at least three armored personnel
carriers and a tank cut off access to Tel al-Sultan, the missile could be heard
streaking across the sky towards its target. A large cloud of dust went up where
it hit. The attack seemed at odds with some Israeli statements that the missile
was only a flare meant to deter the crowd.
From the army position, explosions could be heard around the neighborhood where
Israeli troops were operating throughout the day.
The high number of dead and injured civilians led to an immediate increase
in pressure on Israel to abandon its action in Rafah. The operation was launched
Sunday when troops cut off Rafah from the rest of the Gaza Strip. It came after
Israel suffered heavy losses in fighting in the area last week.
By Wednesday afternoon the toll of people killed since the beginning of the
incursion had reached at least 39.
Israeli opposition parties demanded an immediate end to the operation after
the killing of the demonstrators. One Parliamentarian from the Labor party said
the army should get out "before it turns into another Lebanon." Since the escalation
in the fighting last week, comparisons between Israel's occupation of South
Lebanon and Gaza have been frequent.
The Palestinian Authority said it would protest to the United Nations, and
demanded that sanctions be imposed on Israel.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the Rafah operation "unacceptable
and wrong." The official Russian reaction spoke of "disproportionate use of
In the morning five Palestinians were reported killed in Tel al-Sultan. The
Israeli army said they died in a gunfight.
Israeli army vans had gone around Tel al-Sultan and neighboring Canada camp
calling on all male residents between the ages of 16 and 30 to come out and
gather at a central point, several residents said.
One man who identified himself only as Mohammed said on phone around noon that
he could see hundreds of residents of Canada camp moving through the neighborhood
to a gathering point.
They were holding up their hands in surrender and some were carrying white
flags, he said. Soldiers intermittently fired into the air to herd the crowd
in the right direction, he said.
One resident of Canada camp also reached on phone said her husband and two
sons had gone out to join the surrender. "I'm so worried about them, I haven't
heard anything from them since they left," she said.
In Canada camp troops were carrying out searches of homes, and tanks had taken
up positions in the streets, damaging the roads, she said.
In an apparent effort to counter negative press reports, the Israeli army had
on Wednesday agreed to take several foreign correspondents into Tel al-Sultan.
The reporters were taken only to the outskirts of the neighborhood, and witnessed
the helicopter launching its missile.
After the incident the army rapidly offered several different explanations
for the bloodbath, although the official spokesman said it was still under investigation.
Some army sources said the real damage was done by a tank shell that was fired
near the demonstration.
Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Committee for Foreign Affairs and Defense and
a member of Prime Minister Sharon's Likud party, said what had happened was
"tragic" but that Palestinians sometimes send civilians into dangerous places
Israel has expressed regret for the incident, and the Israeli army says it
is allowing ambulances to travel between Rafah and the rest of the Gaza strip
to help Palestinians cope with the wounded.
In Rafah residents sneered at the gestures. Abu Hamada said "they call us terrorists,
what should we call them?"