Israeli forces ended a bloody weeklong operation in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun early yesterday, leaving behind a swath of destroyed homes, uprooted trees and streets muddied with sewage water from pipes destroyed by tanks and bulldozers.
The army said it had uncovered large amounts of weapons and killed and arrested dozens of militants in the operation aimed at decreasing Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli towns. Forces took up new positions outside the town of Beit Hanoun, but did not leave the Gaza Strip completely, the military said.
In the dawn light, hundreds of Beit Hanoun residents -- who spent most of the last week holed up inside their homes as troops and militants battled in the town's streets -- milled around inspecting the damage left behind by the army.
Hundreds of people climbed over large sand dunes that block the entrances to the town. Women stood outside their homes, many of the outer walls damaged by tanks that rumbled through the town's streets, ripping up asphalt, trees and cars on their way.
Telephone and electricity wires lay exposed on the destroyed roads, the tanks' tracks clearly evident nearby. The outer wall of the town's cemetery was destroyed by tanks, and several tombstones were uprooted. Some residents tried to fix the tombstones, while others dug fresh graves for those killed in the fighting.
Khalil Yazgi, 45, looked on as children and women picked through the rubble of the four-story structure that had been home to his extended family of 50 people. All that remained was a staircase and the exposed rooms of an apartment.
"If I was against the rockets before, now I will encourage people to launch rockets from every spot from everywhere because rockets are not a pretext for what is going on here," Yazgi said. "This is an act of terror ... If you look around it's as though a crazy cow walked through a porcelain shop."
The fighting has been characterized by fierce street battles and Israeli air strikes meant to target militants. On Friday, women loyal to the Islamic group Hamas marched to a Beit Hanoun mosque to get men detained by the army released. Troops fired on the group -- many of them in full Islamic veils -- killing two and wounding 10 others.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian president and prime minister, who head rival movements, failed again to agree on a joint government that might lead to lifting Western sanctions that have bankrupted their administration -- but they planned to keep trying.
Moderate President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas met for more than two hours late on Monday without forging an agreement.
Mustafa Barghouti, an independent politician, called the meeting "fruitful."
"There was agreement on some issues, but some issues still need to be discussed," he said.