Uprooted trees, razed houses... Israel leaves its calling card in Gaza

By Eric Silver and Sa'id Ghazali in Jerusalem

The Independent

06 August 2004

The Palestinians of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip began to count the cost of a month-long Israeli invasion as the troops finally pulled out yesterday, leaving a trail of anger, despair and devastation behind them.

More than 42,000 olive, citrus and date trees had been uprooted, according to the local council. Altogether, 4,405 acres of orchards, vineyards and vegetable fields were flattened.

Officials accused the army of demolishing 21 houses and damaging a further 314. Five factories and 19 wells were also destroyed. They said the loss could reach as high as £70m.

The Israelis said they went in to stop Hamas militants firing rockets at Sderot, a town of 24,000 across the border inside Israel. One salvo killed a three-year-old boy and a middle-aged man there five weeks ago. A house was damaged earlier this week, and two more rockets fell on open ground yesterday.

Before pulling out, the army distributed leaflets with a cartoon showing rockets bouncing back at Beit Hanoun. "Terror," it read, "will kill you."

Two weeks ago Hamas gunmen shot dead a youth whose family tried to stop them firing rockets from their backyard for fear of reprisals, but the blockade may yet rebound on Israel.

Basel al Masri, a farmer who lost an acre and a half of grape vines, said: "Everybody here agrees that the militants should not fire from a densely populated area. But after this massive destruction, the people of Beit Hanoun will tell them to come and fire rockets from the tops of our houses."

Abdullah Musleh estimated that it would cost $400,000 (£220,000) to rebuild his floor tile factory. "They have no justification for doing this," he said.

"It is deliberate destruction of our economy. They have destroyed everything, three automatic pressing machines, the offices, the cement containers, even the marble floors under the machines. My 15 workers will be unemployed."

Abdel Kareem Abu Jarad and his extended family of 26 had their two-storey home commandeered as a base for the army. When they heard that the soldiers had gone they returned, only to watch a bulldozer razing the building.

Mr Abu Jarad said: "No rockets were fired near our house. There is no justification for all this brutality."

All their savings, $7,000 and 25,000 shekels (£6,500 altogether) in cash, had gone. Mr Abu Jarad said he suspected the soldiers of stealing them.

Captain Jacob Dallal, a military spokesman, said the orchards and buildings were used as a shelter for militants. "We don't want to be there," he added. "We just don't want the [missiles] to be fired from there. If the terrorist groups operate from among the civilian population and use private property to launch attacks, they also have to be accountable."

The Israeli media reported yesterday that Mousa Arafat, the Palestinian security chief, had met secretly with his Israeli opposite number to try to stop the rocket firings. But the people of Beit Hanoun have lost faith in their leaders.

Three Palestinian ministers set up a tent there yesterday to assess the damage but five gunmen burst in and ordered them to leave.

"We didn't see you when the Israeli army was destroying Beit Hanoun," one of them shouted through a loudhailer. "Go away. We don't want you here." As the locals applauded, the ministers left.