By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 8, 2006
JERUSALEM, Nov. 7 -- Israeli forces that had been engaged in operations in the northern Gaza Strip largely withdrew before dawn Tuesday, ending a military campaign that killed more than 60 Palestinians, more than half of them from the armed groups at war with the Jewish state.
Some Israeli soldiers remain in northern Gaza, the main launch site for crude rockets that Palestinian guerrillas frequently fire into Israel, and armed Palestinians and Israeli forces clashed several times in the hours after the pullout, leaving at least seven Palestinians dead.
The six-day Israeli push into Beit Hanoun, an agricultural town of roughly 28,000 people, was designed to stop the rocket fire into Israel. The rockets, known as Qassams, pack little explosive force and rarely kill Israelis.
Although the rocket fire has been declining in recent months, it is still a daily menace to tens of thousands of Israelis who live near the Gaza border. The number of rockets that landed in and around the city of Sderot spiked during the operation, lightly injuring several Israelis.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz said military operations, usually airstrikes and artillery fire, would continue until the rocket attacks end. The Israeli military reported that five rockets landed in southern Israel -- four in the city of Ashkelon north of Gaza -- after it declared the operation over.
In a statement announcing the troop withdrawal, the Israeli military said it had seized "large amounts of weaponry" during the operation, which it dubbed Autumn Clouds. The war materiel seized included Qassam launchers, rocket-propelled grenades and launchers, mines, assault rifles and ammunition.
Israeli forces did not recover any sophisticated antitank weapons, or the Katyusha rockets that military officials have warned are being smuggled into Gaza through tunnels by the military wing of Hamas, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades. Hamas controls the Palestinian ministries.
The Israeli military said "dozens" of Palestinians were taken to Israel for questioning.
Palestinian health officials said Tuesday that 62 Palestinians, more than a third of them civilians, were killed in the Israeli operation.
[Palestinian officials reported Wednesday morning that Israeli shelling in Beit Hanoun had killed at least 18 Palestinians, among them women and children, and wounded scores more.
The reports, which Israel's military said it was investigating, said in one case a tank shell struck a house, killing a nine-year-old child inside and several of his relatives.]
The four largest armed groups said Tuesday 37 of their gunmen were killed, the majority from Hamas's military wing. More than 250 other Palestinians were wounded, health officials said. Palestinian leaders described the operation as a massacre.
A 21-year-old Israeli soldier was killed on the first day of fighting. Several other soldiers were wounded, including two by a female suicide bomber.
A small number of Israeli tanks remained around the edge of Beit Hanoun, and Palestinian witnesses said a column of tanks and bulldozers moved into a coastal strip west of the city of Beit Lahiya, where forces operated in June and July against rocket launch sites.
After most tanks left the strip, Israeli military officials said, soldiers fired at two armed Palestinians near Beit Lahiya. The two men, identified as members of the radical Islamic Jihad movement, were killed.
Soon after, near the Jabalya refugee camp, Palestinian gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades at Israeli forces, military officials said. The troops responded with tank fire, military officials said.
Palestinian witnesses said a shell hit the home of Jamila al-Shanti, a Hamas legislator who helped organize a women's demonstration last week at a mosque in Beit Hanoun that allowed dozens of gunmen to slip through an Israeli military cordon. Palestinian witnesses said Shanti's sister-in-law and two men belonging to Hamas's military wing were killed inside the house.
Israeli military officials said troops fired later at an armed Palestinian near Beit Lahiya. Palestinian health officials said the man, Nadar Abu al-Amreen, was killed, although it could not be immediately determined if he was affiliated with one of the armed groups.
An Israeli airstrike Tuesday afternoon on a car in northern Gaza killed one member of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed wing of the Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Three others in the car were wounded.
Special correspondent Islam Abdelkareem in Gaza contributed to this report.