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Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Hits Home in Beit Lahiya

SHEILAH KAST, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Sheilah Kast.

Fighting in the Gaza Strip between Israeli forces and Palestinians has now gone on for twelve days. Israeli air strikes today hit militants and damaged a bridge in northeast Gaza. Israel rebuffed Hamas calls for a cease-fire, saying any agreement must include release of their captured soldier.

Meanwhile, Israeli ground forces on Saturday pulled out of one north Gaza town. Local residents began to clear away damage from two days of intensive fighting that claimed the lives of 40 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier.

From Gaza, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

An Israeli military official says for now the ground operation in the town of Beit Lahiya in the north is over. But, he added, Israel didn't rule out returning. Israeli ground forces are still inside Gaza in the south, near a disused airport, and along part of the eastern border where sporadic firefights and air strikes continue.

Israel says the operation in Beit Lahiya damaged terrorist infrastructure and helped neutralize rocket launchers. Ahmed al-Ahtar(ph) says the operation damaged his home and grape and fig fields out front, from which he makes his living.

Mr. AHMED AL-AHTAR (Resident, Beit Lahiya): (Through translator) With this operation, they just destroyed the trees and houses. What they are doing here? This has nothing to do with rockets.

WESTERVELT: They say it does have something to do with rockets, that rockets are fired from open areas around here. Do you think rockets should continue to be fired at Israel or not?

Mr. AL-AHTAR: (Through translator) What is this war for? For this sand, which we are going to die and to be buried under it? There is no need. For me rockets should stop from both sides.

WESTERVELT: For two days, Ahmed al-Ahtar's house was taken over by Israeli special forces who used the house as an observation post and a firing position. Israeli forces knocked down a wall on the north side of his house. Broken pieces of a trashed bedroom spill out in the yard. Soldiers ripped up part of the dining room floor, apparently to reach the sand beneath it for sandbags. Soldiers blasted half a dozen holes in the walls to use as sniper and observation holes.

The al-Ahtar family, his wife Samah(ph), their seven children, and some 20 other family members, hunkered down frightened, in a neighbor's house.

Mr. AL-AHTAR: (Through translator) We were not able to sleep. All the time random shooting. The children could not sleep, they were panicked all the time, screaming, afraid.

WESTERVELT: Most of the nearly 40 Palestinians killed in the fighting were militant gunmen, but not all. Ahmed lost two cousins in the fighting he says were farmers, not fighters. Last night the Israeli army says an air strike hit gunmen carrying anti-tank missiles just east of Gaza City. A 42-year-old woman, her six-year-old daughter, and a 20-year-old son were killed in an explosion in that area, according to hospital officials and witnesses. Israel denies the casualties were from its fire.

Earlier Saturday, the head of the Hamas-led Palestinian government, Ismail Haniyeh, urged a return to calm on both sides, and he called for negotiations on the captured Israeli soldier.

But Haniyeh's call was contradicted by other Hamas leaders here, including Mushir al-Masri, who called the Israeli pull-back in the north a victory, and pledged more rocket fire.

Mr. MUSHEAR AL-MASRHI (Hamas Leader): (Through translator) Because some rockets are not offensive rockets. They are defensive rockets. And they will continue as long as aggression against us continues.

WESTERVELT: Israeli officials rejected Ismail Haniyeh's truce offer, saying it said nothing about releasing the Israeli soldier or stopping daily rocket fire, the two conditions a spokesman said, for any truce. And Hamas militants in the streets - the Hamas paramilitary arm is one of the groups holding the Israeli soldier - said they were not interested in any cease fire.

In the Atatra(ph) neighborhood in North Gaza militants brandished weapons and vowed to continue fighting. This masked Hamas member declined to give his name.

Unidentified Man (Hamas Member): So far this operation has failed to achieve its purposes. The soldier is still missing, and the rockets have doubled in numbers towards Zionist targets.

WESTERVELT: Ten kassam rockets were fired overnight, and two more this morning. One struck a house in the Israeli city of Sturoat(ph), lightly injuring two people.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.