The Tel al-Sultan neighborhood of Rafah bore the brunt of the large-scale operation the Israeli army launched Tuesday after suffering severe losses last week. Streets leading into the neighborhood were blocked by tanks and sand hills, local residents said.
The incursion started after midnight with a missile strike on Block O in Rafah where Islamic Jihad blew up an Israeli armored personnel carrier last week. But later in the night the army surprisingly concentrated its actions on Tel al-Sultan, a neighborhood that does not border Egypt.
The fighting claimed at least 16 lives in less than 24 hours.
Israeli army chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon says the primary objective is to cut smuggling of arms through tunnels. He said Palestinians had not been thought to have rocket propelled grenades that may have been used in last week’s attack on the Israeli armored vehicle.
“In order to prevent such weapons being brought in, Israel has been forced to take action,” he said.
An Israeli government spokesman said the operation was not aiming at widespread demolition of houses along the border, as many Palestinians fear. He said most people who fled their homes over the last couple of days will be able to return.
The human rights group Amnesty International issued a report Tuesday highly critical of the Israeli policy of house demolitions.
“In the vast majority of cases, it’s wanton destruction,” said Donatella Rovera from Amnesty’s Middle East program. “It’s unnecessary, disproportionate, unjustified, and deliberate.”
Amnesty said that over the last three-and-a-half years Israel has destroyed more than 3,000 Palestinian homes.
In some cases that represented a breach of the fourth Geneva Convention and amounted to war crimes, Amnesty said.
Ya’alon held Palestinians responsible. “If they want to prevent house demolitions, they must stop the arms smuggling,” he said.
In Rafah, the morgue of Abu Yousouf al-Najjar hospital, the only one in town, was overflowing Tuesday. Two bodies that were brought in from the heavy fighting during the night had to be temporarily kept in a nearby shop.
The attack on Rafah had started after midnight. Some thirty minutes later ambulances started bringing in the first casualties of what Israel is calling Operation Rainbow.
One man had been killed earlier when a bomb he was making went off, witnesses said.
The three men killed in the missile strikes were all said to be members of one of the armed wings of the Fatah movement, the Aburish Brigades who resemble the better known al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
Their bodies were brought in on blood-soaked stretchers. One was immediately delivered to the under-equipped morgue, the two others were later brought in from the casualty ward.
The mother of one of the dead men, Walid Abu Jazza, wailed next to his stretcher. “Walid, where are you, I want to see you,” she cried.
Around four in the morning a stream of ambulances arrived with sirens screaming, bringing in the first casualties from the fighting in the Tel al-Sultan neighborhood. Eyewitnesses said two missiles had targeted a group of people entering the Bilal mosque for early morning prayers.
Suleiman al-Kutati stood outside the hospital gates with his dead friend’s cell phone in his hand. He said Tareq Sheikleid was next to him when the first missile hit. “He ran to help and that was when the second missile struck.” Sheikleid was killed on the spot.
Al-Kutati said there was no fighting in the neighborhood when the missiles struck. But the armed wing of Hamas, the Izzedine al-Kassam Brigades, later said three of its members were among the seven dead. The Israeli army said its strikes targeted “militants.”
The fighting was strongest during the night and subsided somewhat during the day. The shops in downtown Rafah were mostly closed, as were the schools.
The army had cut off the town from the rest of the Gaza Strip Monday afternoon. On Tuesday the electricity was cut.
Five funerals converged on the central al-Awda mosque during noon prayers. Banners from several armed Palestinian groups were held up outside.
One leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade stood outside with a group of armed men. He called himself Abu Hamada and said his group had lost seven members in half a night’s fighting.
“No, I don’t think that is too high a price to pay,” he said, holding a Kalashnikov across his chest. “Even if we lose all of Rafah and we all become martyrs it is worth keeping up the resistance.”
He expressed no regret for the destruction of the Israeli armored vehicle. “We are not the aggressors,” he said. “The Jews come into our neighborhoods and destroy our houses, what are we supposed to do?”
Abu Hamada said the Israeli army’s aim in Tel al-Sultan was only to find one man. “Of course I cannot tell you who.”
During the day there were continuing reports of fighting in Tel al-Sultan. There were reports also of firing on ambulances.