The hope raised by Israel's recent proposal to withdraw from the Gaza Strip has skidded into a harsh reality: The territory is being transformed into battlefield with civilians caught in the crossfire.
The Israeli army raided two Gaza refugee camps early Sunday, killing 14 Palestinians and wounding more than 80. The incursion squelched expectations that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's offer to withdraw from the Gaza Strip - and remove all or most of the 17 settlements there - could represent a turning point in the conflict.
The raid began around 2 a.m. and continued until approximately 8 a.m., when many Palestinians were heading to work and school. It came a day after an attack on an Israeli checkpoint that the Israeli army found worrisomely innovative: Palestinian militants had painted two jeeps in the same khaki color used by the Israeli military, attempting to ram the checkpoint with explosives. In that botched attack, six Palestinians were killed.
In Sunday's raids, 10 of those killed were confirmed by local and Israeli military sources to be armed gunmen - nine of them affiliated with Hamas, the Islamic militant group opposed to all compromise with Israel. But the other four appear to be civilians, all under the age of 16, including an 8-year-old boy. According to some reports, they threw stones and firebombs at the soldiers.
Ali Mohammed, a middle-aged factory worker, said he was in the street when he saw a bullet cut down a young boy out in the street with his friends. Israeli soldiers, Mr. Mohammed says, were shooting from the roof of a building they occupied, and from helicopters. Witnesses say they also saw four or five tanks, which left behind muddied tracks, to back up the soldiers.
"He was on his way to school. I took shelter against the wall, but the boy was exposed. Everyone was running. I saw him, his face was on the ground," Mohammed says of Mahmoud Younis, the 8-year-old boy he had hoped to save. "It was a killing in cold blood."
That was the common sentiment of most Palestinians here, many of whom were already skeptical of Mr. Sharon's sincerity since he announced he would withdraw the Israeli army along with residents of 17 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. The pullout is supposed to start by the end of the year.
While some Palestinians searched for loved ones and prepared for funerals, others wore camouflage shirts and black masks over their faces. Walls in the camps were spray-painted with messages that foreshadowed more "martyrdom" - a sort of sainthood in which Palestinians include both innocent bystander and suicide bomber alike.
Ziad Abu Amr, an analyst who studied Islamic fundamentalists movements in Gaza, says that deadly invasions like Sunday's help recruit more Palestinians for attacks on Israel. "Is the idea to provoke Palestinian reaction and retaliation, and for Sharon to find a pretext to give up on his proposed withdrawal from settlements? Or is this a way to divert attention from his internal problems?" asks Mr. Amr.
"Large numbers of Palestinians would be motivated to become bombers to avenge this," he says. …