Hassan Taha said the women of his family have had their cash and gold jewelry packed for months, waiting for the Israeli military to come for the Taha men, activists in one of the most radical Palestinian militant organizations. Early this morning, the Israelis came, just as the women had feared.
Merkava tanks, armored cars, AH-64 Apache helicopters and undercover forces surrounded the Taha house, arrested its patriarch and three of his sons, sent the women with their little bags of money and jewelry into the street and turned their concrete home into a dusty heap. During the next four hours of assaults and gun battles across several blocks of this crowded refugee enclave, eight Palestinians died and 38 were wounded. Two Israeli soldiers were injured.
Among the dead was a 41-year-old woman, nine months pregnant, who was crushed by a collapsing wall, and a 13-year-old boy whose body was riddled with bullets, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
The Gaza attack, including the arrests of the Taha men who belong to the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, was the latest in the Israeli military's increasingly aggressive assaults throughout the Gaza Strip. On Sunday, Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, warned that the military would increase attacks against Hamas in Gaza.
"We want a situation where the terror organizations invest more and more defending themselves," he said.
Hamas has been responsible for some of the deadliest suicide bombings and other attacks against Israelis since the Palestinian uprising began more than 29 months ago. Hamas and other militant groups have launched inaccurate, but terror-inducing Qassam rockets into Jewish settlements in Gaza and Israeli communities across the border. Five were fired this afternoon, according to Palestinian reports.
Since the beginning of the year, 88 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip. Five Israeli troops have been killed by Palestinian militants during the same period, including four who burned to death when their tank was blown up by a buried bomb last month. In recent weeks, Israeli tanks and soldiers have penetrated deeper into Gaza's urban areas, once considered too treacherous for a ground attack.
According to the Tahas' neighbors, Israeli forces dressed as Palestinian civilians drove in two yellow taxis to the street where the Taha house stood, then mingled with Palestinian fighters in the densely populated Bureij refugee camp just after midnight. Some of the fighters even called out to the men in the taxis, "Take care, there might be special forces around!" recalled Mohammed Abu Ahmed, 32, who watched from his second-story window across the street from the Taha house.
An Israeli military spokeswoman, Maj. Sharon Feingold, said she could not comment on the use of undercover forces.
The special forces troops, with bulletproof vests and guns concealed under bulky winter jackets, then raced toward the Taha house and set off explosives, blowing open the doors just after neighbors said they realized the men were not Palestinians. Armored jeeps and tanks quickly surrounded the house, neighbors said.
Mohammed Taha, 65, a former university teacher and a founder of the Hamas organization in 1987, and three of his five sons, all Hamas activists, were in the house, according to the Israeli military and Hassan Taha, 31, another son, who said he avoided capture because he was not at home.
Israeli military officials said family members tossed two hand grenades, injuring two soldiers, and troops fired back, hitting and injuring the father and his eldest son.
"Our father is a Hamas activist; he helped establish Hamas," said Hassan Taha, squatting on a broken concrete stone facing the rubble that was once his home and fielding cell phone calls from friends and relatives offering temporary lodging.
Hassan Taha's retelling of the family's history with Hamas, of their deportations and arrests, tracked closely with a rap sheet released by the Israeli military, although he refused to comment on his family members' precise roles within the organization.
The elder Taha has been associated primarily with the political side of the organization, speaking at rallies, typically calling for the pursuit of "jihad until the total liberation of Palestine," according to news accounts of his addresses over the years.
The rap sheet cited the family members primarily for activities conducted almost a decade ago, noting that the oldest son, Ayman, 32, is "senior" in the organization and was arrested in 1993 after explosives were found in his home. Likewise, Abdullah, 23, was arrested when explosives were found next to him in a mosque, and Abed, 19, was listed as "military Hamas activist." The report did not detail recent activities of the men other than to note that Ayman was "involved in trafficking weapons."
Israeli military officials said an M-16 rifle and an explosive belt were found in the Taha house.
"We expected this to happen any time," said Hassan Taha, who, though he was one of two Taha sons who were not arrested this morning, said he had been arrested five times previously. Gazing at the rubble of the house that was home to 15 members of the extended Taha family, Hassan said, "I feel proud; this is like a mark of honor. What they did gave me the incentive to keep going in the resistance and occupation."
The Israeli military has said its policy of destroying the homes of militants or those who shelter them is intended to discourage terrorist activities.
Today, its forces demolished the houses of four families it said were associated with militant groups, and in doing so caused damage to a mosque and several adjoining structures. Palestinians said the damaged structures included the home of Noha Makadmah, 41, nine months pregnant with her 11th child, who was crouched on her bed holding her 2-year-old daughter , Mona, when the custard yellow wall of her bedroom came crashing down.
"I started screaming for help from my neighbors," said her husband, Shokri, 41. He dug through the chunks of concrete and found 15-year-old Nisma alive, lifted another piece of debris and pulled out 5-year-old Yusef. Then, with the help of neighbors, he shoved away a large slab and found his wife bent over and crushed to death.
But the red-eyed father said when he tugged at his wife's lifeless body, he found little Mona beneath her, alive and protected by her mother's pregnant belly.