50,000 trapped by Israeli assault on GazaIsraeli forces have demolished the homes of hundreds of Palestinians, bulldozed swaths of agricultural land and destroyed infrastructure in their bloodiest assault on the Gaza Strip in years.
More than 70 people have died in Operation Days of Penitence, launched in northern Gaza six days ago after a Hamas rocket attack killed two Israeli children. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said that the dead included 31 civilians. Nineteen were under 18.
Most of the nine people killed yesterday were Palestinian fighters, but a teenage girl was among the dead, shot in her home. In southern Gaza Israeli forces killed a four-year-old boy in Khan Yunis refugee camp, where several Palestinian children have been shot dead in recent weeks.
Last night the Israeli army said it had killed a Palestinian gunman who had tried to infiltrate a nearby settlement. Early today an Israeli missile strike in Jabaliya killed one Palestinian militant and wounded two others.
But shielded from view is the suffering of about 50,000 Palestinians trapped in areas seized by hundreds of Israeli troops, backed by about 200 tanks and armoured vehicles.
Palestinians in the Israeli-held areas, including parts of Jabaliya refugee camp and the small town of Beit Hanoun, described by telephone the widespread destruction and desperate living conditions.
Armoured bulldozers had demolished scores, possibly hundreds, of homes, they said. Thousands of people had spent days without electricity and water, although power was restored sporadically yesterday. Residents said that the destruction of sewage systems had contaminated the water supplies in some areas.
"I can hear shooting now," said Hanna Basyouni, 35, who has seven children, speaking from an occupied section of Jabaliya. "I see the tanks below me. The tanks and the bulldozers are 50 metres away from my home. I can see them shooting right now."
Mrs Basyouni lives on the edge of Jabaliya where, she said, the Israeli army had bulldozed greenhouses that had been families' only source of income for several generations.
The Israeli military says it is clearing a six-mile-wide buffer zone to stop Hamas launching rockets across the border. But yesterday the Islamist group fired two missiles into Israel. "There's not one tree left for as far as I can see," said Mrs Basyouni. "Five or six homes around me are completely bulldozed, and I can't be sure how many beyond that. My sister's home was destroyed ... [She] is living in a tent. She has nine children."
Ambulance drivers, the only Palestinians permitted to cross into the occupied areas, confirmed the scale of the destruction. Abid Ahmed Abu Mohammed, a driver for Kamal Odwan hospital, said: "We saw at least 50 houses bulldozed on the edge of Jabaliya and many inside the camp.
"I think most of the bulldozing was to make way for the tanks. There are main roads but the Israelis were afraid to use them because of mines. The bulldozers ... destroyed whatever was in their way - entire streets."
The Israeli army said it had destroyed or damaged a "small number" of homes, either because its soldiers had been attacked or to allow its tanks to avoid booby-trapped roads.
Many people are without water in Beit Hanoun, a town of 15,000 near the border with Israel. Aref Azaneed, a ministry of agriculture inspector, said: "The water and the sewage lines are near each other. When the tanks destroy them, they mix. The water from the tap has sewage in it."
Over the past three years the army has levelled 60% of Beit Hanoun's agricultural land, destroying its wealth and the main source of citrus fruit and olives in the Gaza Strip.
"Nobody comes in, nobody goes out," Mr Azaneed said. "We can only move inside Beit Hanoun, and in a very careful way. There are about 40 tanks about 30 metres from houses close to Salahadin Road."
A UN official said yesterday Israel had wrongly accused Hamas militants of using a UN ambulance to carry rockets, while Israeli officials renewed accusations that Unrwa, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, was harbouring terrorists, the Associated Press reported.
Israel has demanded the UN investigate the actions of Peter Hansen, its top official in Gaza, after its army released video footage from an unmanned aircraft that reportedly showed militants loading a rocket into a UN vehicle in Gaza.
The UN says the footage shows a worker loading a stretcher into the vehicle. On Monday Mr Hansen wrote to the Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, accusing Israel of inventing the story.