In Middle East, Heaviest Toll Exacted on Civilians

RAFAH REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip, Oct. 18 — The 60-ton Merkava tank clanking around the mouth of the main road of Rafah refugee camp’s “O Block” permeated just about every conversation on the street.

Said Abdulaty Ebed, 45, stepped outside the door of his grocery store to chat about the tank with a neighbor who squatted in the shade of a cubbyhole across the street, residents recalled. Fatma Abu Jazar, 70, sat on her doorstep in the next block with her niece, complaining to her neighbor that boys in the camp were again ignoring her advice to stay away from the Israeli armored behemoth.

“Suddenly, the tank launched its artillery,” said Khalid el-Zeben, the 35-year-old man who had been chatting with the grocer. “He was standing in the door and I saw the missile hit his body. I thought I was a dead man. I hid my eyes.”

In the space of a few minutes Thursday afternoon, the narrow main street of O Block became a corridor of fiery metal shards and flying body parts. In the end, six Palestinians who had been going about their daily lives — buying snacks, gossiping with neighbors, taking an afternoon nap — were dead, and 45 other Palestinians had been injured, mostly by shrapnel. Two other Palestinian men, who remained unidentified, were reported killed near the edge of O Block, but Palestinian medical officials said the Israeli military had not allowed ambulances to retrieve their bodies.

Israeli military authorities said they did not intend to hit the civilians. The tank crew’s target, they said, was a “cell” of rocket-propelled grenade launchers that Palestinian gunmen were firing at soldiers and engineers building a new guard tower at the entrance to the camp, which straddles the Gaza Strip’s southern border with Egypt. Israeli military officials said that, in addition to the civilians, two Palestinian gunmen were killed in the attack.

In a two-year war that has intensified animosity, distrust and fear on both sides of the conflict, the carnage in O Block was representative of what has become routine in recent months in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank: young Israeli soldiers equipped with main battle tanks designed for desert warfare matched against Palestinian urban guerrillas using small arms and homemade projectiles, grenades and explosives.

In the majority of military operations, it is not the combatants — neither the Israeli soldiers nor the Palestinian gunmen — who die. It is the civilians attempting to maintain normal lives under abnormal conditions: merchants tending their shops, women visiting with neighbors, children sleeping in their beds or playing in the streets. And when the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, vows to exact revenge for the Palestinians killed, as it did today, the victims have often been Israeli civilians riding buses or walking down the streets.

During the past three months, at least 90 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip during Israeli military operations. Four Israeli soldiers have been killed, including one hit by sniper fire near the Rafah camp in July. Of the Palestinians killed, at least 24 were children. During the same time, 38 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in Israel by Palestinian suicide bombings.

As was the case in many of the incidents, it is unclear how Thursday’s bloodshed on the southern edge of the overcrowded, impoverished Rafah camp began. The day before, the Israeli military had begun construction of a new observation tower at the foot of O Block’s main street.

The military maintains the tower is needed to guard a dangerous border area, where officials say arms smuggling is rampant. Palestinian residents complain the tower will give soldiers a vantage point over the entire camp, allowing them to see directly into many homes.

The Israeli military said Palestinian gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles fired on its armored bulldozer and Merkava tank, which has a 120mm artillery barrel and a heavy machine gun. According to the Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, soldiers in the tank shot back.

No resident acknowledged hearing gunfire coming from inside the camp, although a neighbor said Fatma Abu Jazar had been chastising young boys for throwing rocks at the tanks, and at least one injured man in a local hospital said he was a member of the “armed resistance” protecting the camp from the Israeli military.

Residents of O Block who said they witnessed Thursday’s attack did offer consistent accounts of what occurred just after 2 p.m.:

The first projectile fired by the Merkava tank, visible at the end of the street behind the sepia sheen of sun glinting off desert dust, snapped a wooden utility pole in half outside Ebed’s grocery store. The second shell hit Ebed, slicing his body in half, according to rescue workers, and splattering nearby concrete buildings with hundreds of tiny bits of flesh.

Slivers of shrapnel also cut through the bodies of two customers in the tiny corner grocery, 15-year-old Mohammed Abu Helal and 30-year-old Aymen el-Ghol.

In a tiny bedroom in a concrete-block house across the street from the store, 10-year-old Shaymaa Abu Shammaleh had been awakened by the first shell, which shook the building. She leaped from her bed screaming for her grandfather, who was in another part of the house, according to her aunt, Rahima Abu Shunalah.

As Shaymaa reached her bedroom door, scraps of flying metal from the shell that hit the grocer punched through the metal exterior door at the end of the hallway in her house. One piece of shrapnel sliced off half her face.

Seconds later, a third shell landed in the street about six feet from where Fatma Abu Jazar sat in front of a rust-colored metal door talking to her 32-year-old niece, Tahrer Abu Jazar, who was visiting from Cairo.

Fatma Shaath, 60, said she had just finished a conversation with her neighbor, Fatma, and had closed the door to her home across the street when the shell landed. She ran back into the street and found her friend crumpled on the ground. Metal shards from the shell severed the elder woman’s leg, and other pieces lodged in the chests of both women as they collapsed together into a vast pool of blood that spread across the sandy street.

“They are killing us like chickens,” sobbed Shaath, tears streaming down her weathered cheeks.

As neighbors began dashing into the street to assist the wounded, a fourth shell smashed into a white Peugeot whose owner had parked on the street and walked down a nearby alley only minutes before the attack began.

A fifth artillery round slammed into a tiny concrete house at the end of the street, about 3 1/2 blocks from the tank.

“People were cut into pieces,” said Faud el-Moghrabui, 25, a neighbor. “The shopkeeper was cut in two. We tried to reach him and the soldiers shot at us.”

When he and others searched the interior of the shattered store, we “found pieces of hands and legs, and one man who lost his face,” said el-Moghrabui.

Friends and relatives of Ebed — the shopkeeper, who was the father of 12 children — carried his sheet-covered remains back to his shop and adjoining house for a final farewell today, even as neighbors continued to scrub flecks of his flesh from the walls of the store that had become a neighborhood fixture.

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