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Last Updated: Monday, 6 November 2006, 18:51 GMT
Palestinians gripped by fear in Gaza
Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

Palestinian man
More than 50 Palestinians have been killed in the last six days
A young Palestinian woman has blown herself up in a suicide bomb attack on Israeli troops in northern Gaza, injuring one soldier but also wounding a number of civilians.

The suicide bombing came in the northern town of Beit Hanoun, and Israelis will see it as further evidence of a terrorist menace there.

But many Palestinians will regard the attack as an act of desperate resistance.

Beit Hanoun was at the centre of a major, ongoing Israeli military operation.

The army says its aim is to prevent groups like Islamic Jihad firing missiles across the nearby border into southern Israel.

Tight control

In the past six days more than 50 Palestinians have been killed in northern Gaza. Most of them have been militants, but civilians are continually being caught in the violence.

Israeli armoured vehicle
Israeli tanks and soldiers have closed off the town of Beit Hanoun
And nowhere has the hardship been greater than in the town of Beit Hanoun.

It has been under the very tight control of a large force of tanks and troops who have ordered the tens of thousands of local people to stay off the streets for all but very brief periods.

A senior United Nations official, John Ging, has described the atmosphere in Beit Hanoun as one of "death, destruction and despair".

People are living in constant fear.

'We thought we were dead'

A man who would only identify himself as Mahmoud talked of the moment when an Israeli aircraft struck in the street outside his home, where he is raising 12 children.

"I was standing talking to some neighbours, and suddenly a missile landed," he said.

"We heard a bang and then we saw a flash. We couldn't see anything because of the dust. We thought we were dead - but we kept standing."

When the smoke cleared Mahmoud realised that the Israelis had targeted and killed an armed Palestinian Authority security man.

map

"The situation is very, very bad," said Mahmoud. "The Israelis have destroyed Beit Hanoun - they have destroyed the infrastructure. They've cut the water pipes and the telephone lines.

"They put explosives at the doors of the houses - and then they enter on the women and children. Everybody is terrified in their homes."

It is almost impossible for journalists to get into the town, but the World Food Programme spokeswoman, Kirstie Campbell, was among United Nations aid workers allowed to bring in emergency rations and medicines.

"The atmosphere was extremely stressful," she said.

"The people were asking for a lot of things. They were asking for food, for milk, and they were very worried about relatives that have been detained.

"You could really see that the people are suffering."

The Israelis say all this should be blamed on the groups that fire their crudely made rockets from the Beit Hanoun area into nearby Israeli towns and villages.

Launch zone

The army has come in to root out the militants. Hundreds of men have been rounded up and questioned, and some have been taken away to Israel.

But in Beit Hanoun they will argue that much of the rocket fire has nothing to do with people from the town. They are just unlucky enough to live in the zone that militants use to launch their attacks.

Mahmoud, the father of 12 from Beit Hanoun, said that any ordinary person trying to stop a rocket being fired would risk being shot - accused of collaborating with the Israeli enemy.

Destroyed Palestinian home
Many civilians in northern Gaza have been caught in the violence
The groups that launch the missiles have a Jihadi-type agenda, and they dream of Israel's eventual destruction.

But they often say that their rocket attacks are simply retaliation for daily Israeli raids and killings in Gaza, and over in the occupied West Bank.

And Mahmoud sympathised with that view.

"If someone attacks you, wouldn't you attack them?" he asked.

And all Palestinians would argue that Israel grossly over-reacts to the missile attacks from Gaza.

The crudely made rockets often cause panic and minor injury, but they very rarely kill.

In response, though, Israel has launched a major military operation that has gone on for more than four months and led to the death of around 350 Palestinians - many of them civilians.

During that time, three Israelis have died. All of them were soldiers, and one of them was shot accidentally by his own side.






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