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Palestinians venture into Gaza 'death zones'

As Israel has begun evacuating Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, Palestinians have started venturing into areas that were battlegrounds between militants attacking the settlements and Israeli troops defending them.
/ Source: Reuters

Khadija Salama grinned broadly as she sat on a mattress in the battered remains of a home she had not visited for four years.

As Israel has begun evacuating Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, Palestinians have started venturing into areas that were battlegrounds between militants attacking the settlements and Israeli troops defending them.

Anyone who set foot in what Palestinians called the "death zones" risked being shot.

Salama's house lay between the biggest Gaza settlement, Neve Dekalim, and the Khan Younis refugee camp, a stronghold of militants during an uprising since 2000.

'I thank God for this'
Neve Dekalim was evacuated on Friday and Israel now hopes to have all the Gaza settlers out by Tuesday.

"I thank God for this," said Salama, who abandoned her house near the start of the Intifada because of the constant shooting.

"When someone fired a single bullet at the settlement, the army used to respond from all directions," she said on Saturday.

Palestinians welcome Israel's withdrawal, the first from settlements on land that they seek for a state, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for "disengaging" from conflict.

Palestinians worry that Sharon's aim is to strengthen Israel's hold on much bigger West Bank settlements, but that has done little to dim celebrations in Gaza.

Around Khan Younis, army bulldozers cleared hundreds of homes near settlements, saying they were used by militants taking cover among civilians to launch attacks. Palestinians called such measures collective punishment.

"It really looks like Hiroshima, but on a lesser scale of course," said Palestinian security officer Marwan Awwad, gesturing towards the rubble and twisted metal of demolished houses.

Reduced tension
Pictures of Palestinians killed are pasted on electricity poles. Their names are spray painted on walls next to political slogans like: "Resistance had defeated the occupation".

Palestinian militants claim the withdrawal as a victory for the uprising. The view is shared by rightist opponents in Israel, who say it sets a dangerous precedent. Most Israelis back the pullout as a way to reduce friction.

Awwad and his men took up positions near Jewish settlements to help ensure militants keep respecting a six-month-old truce and that Israel can complete its withdrawal quietly.

It could take weeks before Israel hands over the settlements and troops will guard them until then, but much of the tension seemed to have gone on Saturday.

In a sign of normalcy, boys played bare-foot on the sand dunes outside Khan Younis. Curious residents approached army watch towers to try to get a better look at the evacuated settlements.

"We hope that once all of settlers and soldiers are gone this chapter of blood and destruction will be over," said Salama.