The killing of at least 10 Palestinian demonstrators and the wounding of many others by Israeli forces in Rafah in the southern Gaza strip Wednesday increased domestic and international pressure on the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to end the military operation in the town.
In Rafah a senior representative of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant offshoot of the Fatah movement, promised revenge for what he called a massacre.
“We will give an answer inside Tel Aviv, in the settlements anywhere inside the (Israeli) borders,” said a commander of the group who called himself Abu Hamada.
He was speaking in a field outside a potato refrigerator that has been used for the last two days to keep the bodies of people killed in the Israeli operation. The hospital morgue in Rafah can only accommodate 12 bodies.
Moments earlier a crying father, Tareq Mansour, had pushed his way into the cold-storage space while others tried to hold him back. He went into the freezer and picked up the body of his 14 year-old son Mahmoud from the bodies on the cardboard covered floor.
He took his son wrapped in a blanket outside and kissed him. Then he put the body back inside, sat there for a while and said goodbye.
Another man cried uncontrollably after seeing his best friend Fuad Sega wrapped in a bloodstained shroud on the refrigerator floor. Sega was 32 and his wife was pregnant, the friend said.
They were killed in a demonstration in which an estimated 2,000 people participated. The demonstration was intended to protest the Israeli army operation in the Tel al-Sultan neighborhood of Rafah.
The demonstrators marched from the centre of Rafah down the Bahr street towards the neighborhood.
Well before reaching the Israeli tank that blocked access to the area, a helicopter gunship launched a missile that landed in front of the first line of protesters. Most victims seem to have been hit by shrapnel and debris.
The Israeli army later issued a statement saying that masked men carrying anti-tank weapons had been spotted among the crowd. Pictures taken by Palestinian TV show unarmed demonstrators marching past Zoroub Square near Tel al-Sultan and then running back in panic.
In Bahr Street trails of blood could be seen leading from Zoroub Square to where the missile hit. Eyewitnesses denied there were any armed men among the crowd, and said that the large majority of the demonstrators were children.
From a nearby Israeli army position where at least three armored personnel carriers and a tank cut off access to Tel al-Sultan, the missile could be heard streaking across the sky towards its target. A large cloud of dust went up where it hit. The attack seemed at odds with some Israeli statements that the missile was only a flare meant to deter the crowd.
From the army position, explosions could be heard around the neighborhood where Israeli troops were operating throughout the day.
The high number of dead and injured civilians led to an immediate increase in pressure on Israel to abandon its action in Rafah. The operation was launched Sunday when troops cut off Rafah from the rest of the Gaza Strip. It came after Israel suffered heavy losses in fighting in the area last week.
By Wednesday afternoon the toll of people killed since the beginning of the incursion had reached at least 39.
Israeli opposition parties demanded an immediate end to the operation after the killing of the demonstrators. One Parliamentarian from the Labor party said the army should get out “before it turns into another Lebanon.” Since the escalation in the fighting last week, comparisons between Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon and Gaza have been frequent.
The Palestinian Authority said it would protest to the United Nations, and demanded that sanctions be imposed on Israel.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the Rafah operation “unacceptable and wrong.” The official Russian reaction spoke of “disproportionate use of force.”
In the morning five Palestinians were reported killed in Tel al-Sultan. The Israeli army said they died in a gunfight.
Israeli army vans had gone around Tel al-Sultan and neighboring Canada camp calling on all male residents between the ages of 16 and 30 to come out and gather at a central point, several residents said.
One man who identified himself only as Mohammed said on phone around noon that he could see hundreds of residents of Canada camp moving through the neighborhood to a gathering point.
They were holding up their hands in surrender and some were carrying white flags, he said. Soldiers intermittently fired into the air to herd the crowd in the right direction, he said.
One resident of Canada camp also reached on phone said her husband and two sons had gone out to join the surrender. “I’m so worried about them, I haven’t heard anything from them since they left,” she said.
In Canada camp troops were carrying out searches of homes, and tanks had taken up positions in the streets, damaging the roads, she said.
In an apparent effort to counter negative press reports, the Israeli army had on Wednesday agreed to take several foreign correspondents into Tel al-Sultan. The reporters were taken only to the outskirts of the neighborhood, and witnessed the helicopter launching its missile.
After the incident the army rapidly offered several different explanations for the bloodbath, although the official spokesman said it was still under investigation. Some army sources said the real damage was done by a tank shell that was fired near the demonstration.
Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Committee for Foreign Affairs and Defense and a member of Prime Minister Sharon’s Likud party, said what had happened was “tragic” but that Palestinians sometimes send civilians into dangerous places on purpose.
Israel has expressed regret for the incident, and the Israeli army says it is allowing ambulances to travel between Rafah and the rest of the Gaza strip to help Palestinians cope with the wounded.
In Rafah residents sneered at the gestures. Abu Hamada said “they call us terrorists, what should we call them?”