The Israeli Red Cross was at the centre of a grim tug of war over the body parts of six soldiers last night after Palestinian forces destroyed an Israeli armoured personnel carrier in Gaza City, then paraded the dismembered remains before the cameras.
"We possess the remains of your bodies that were thrown into the streets of Gaza. We have our demands to hand them over to the Zionist occupier," said a joint statement from Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which claimed the operation along with members of Hamas. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon described the militants as "cruel, inhuman."
The skirmish began before daybreak, when Israeli troops and tanks backed by helicopter gun ships stormed into the Zaitoun neighbourhood on the southern outskirts of Gaza City for what the army said was an operation to destroy two large workshops used to build rockets launched against Israeli settlements.
Eight Palestinians were killed, and more than 100 others were wounded.
The soldiers were blown to pieces shortly after 6 a.m., when Hamas forces exploded a 45-kilogram bomb underneath their vehicle as they headed back to Israel. The blast set off explosives the soldiers were carrying inside the vehicle to destroy the workshops.
Soldiers involved in the mission said the force of the blast destroyed the vehicle and sent parts of bodies flying over a 300-metre radius. They tried to seal off the area and recover the bodies under fire from Palestinian forces, but it proved impossible.
The Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera broadcast a video of two masked Islamic Jihad activists displaying what they said was the head of an Israeli soldier on a table. The Palestinian Authority tried to ban broadcast of the images and called on the militant groups to return the soldiers' remains unconditionally. But officials also criticized the operation that started the fighting.
"We condemn with the strongest possible terms the Israeli military escalation," cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said. "The escalation is only a part of Israel's campaign to continue the path of violence and confrontation."
Israelis reeled in horror at the result of the ambush, the army's worst losses in more than a year. In Judaism and Islam, the failure to bury any part of a body is considered a desecration.
"Today we received a painful reminder of the heavy price we are paying in the struggle to defend our country and the security of our citizens," Mr. Sharon told the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
"We are fighting a cruel, inhuman enemy, and we won't stop fighting it and hurting it no matter where it hides."
The government said it refused to negotiate for the return of the body parts, but the Red Cross confirmed that it had been asked to assist in having the remains returned.
"We are in contact with all the Palestinian groups in an effort to recover the remains," Israeli Red Cross spokesman Uriel Massad said. "I hope this will be settled. There is an obligation to respect the bodies of soldiers."
Late last night, Israeli troops were still engaged in house-to-house searches for the body parts. Major-General Dan Harel said his troops would remain in Gaza City until the remains were recovered.
Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested at an emergency meeting of the Israeli security cabinet that water and electricity supplies to Gaza be cut until the remains were returned.
Israeli forces later launched a missile strike into another part of the city. Hamas said its militants were targeted but escaped unhurt. Medics said an 18-year-old bystander was killed and five people were wounded.
Israeli military officials noted that the earlier operation had been conducted using ground forces instead of missiles in order to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties.
Mr. Sharon is trying to push through a plan to withdraw all Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, but his governing Likud Party rejected the move in a vote last week.
Commentators pointed yesterday to the "Lebanonization" of the resistance to the Israeli army in Gaza, likening the growing wave of Palestinian attacks to the attacks of Hezbollah against Israeli troops in south Lebanon before Israel's withdrawal in 2000.
"The disaster in Gaza will accelerate Israel's disengagement from the Palestinians," Israeli analyst Amos Harel said.