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.
He is only 15, an age at which most boys are out playing soccer after school or studying for exams. But according to charges filed in an Israeli military court yesterday, Nasser Awartani has spent the past year busying himself with more deadly matters.
The Nablus student was charged in an Israeli military court yesterday with recruiting teenagers to become suicide bombers for militant groups, the first time such charges have been levelled against a Palestinian youth.
Israel's military court in the northern West Bank charged Nasser with 12 counts, including attempted murder and membership in a militant group. Although hundreds of Israelis have been killed in suicide attacks, none of the Israeli deaths were attributed to Nasser in the indictment.
An Israeli army spokesman alleged that Nasser was involved in "recruiting, preparing and dispatching young suicide bombers in order to carry out terrorist attacks." His job involved ferrying potential bombers to initial meetings with militants and helping them get ready for attacks.
One of his alleged recruits was Hussam Abdo, the 16-year-old whose picture was flashed around the world as he struggled to remove a suicide bomb at an Israeli checkpoint in March.
Another of the suicide bombers Nasser allegedly recruited was 16-year-old Sabi Abu Saud, who blew himself up at an army checkpoint near Tulkarm last November, injuring several soldiers.
Nasser's mother, Ihlas, said her son could not be guilty because he spent all his time at home. "They want to blame someone, so they have chosen my son," she said.
But Israeli intelligence, who raided the teenager's home and arrested him on March 25, said he arranged suicide attacks for the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and also for the squads of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
According to court documents, Nasser was recruited into al-Aqsa toward the end of last year by two local leaders of the underground group. At first, he began by putting up posters of Palestinian "martyrs" who died while attacking Israeli targets, but then learned how to build homemade guns, the indictment said. In February, he and his alleged comrades in al-Aqsa were photographed with an M16 assault rifle.
Last October, he was allegedly approached by two al-Aqsa leaders and asked to carry out a suicide bombing. He refused, but agreed to help them find other youths, the indictment said.
On March 22, Nasser approached some of Hussam Abdo's classmates and asked them if they could recommend a boy for a suicide attack. They suggested Hussam. On March 24, Hussam was allegedly picked up in central Nablus, blindfolded, and driven to a deserted house where an al-Aqsa bombmaker gave him an explosive harness ready for use. The boy was photographed and wrote out a farewell message to his parents. He was given a box of eggs to carry and driven to the Harawa checkpoint south of Nablus. There, he was spotted by Israeli soldiers, who instructed him how to remove the bomb harness as he stood shaking with terror, saying he didn't want to die. Hussam was recently charged with attempted murder.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday brushed aside suggestions he might resign after the humiliating rejection of his Gaza withdrawal plan by his own Likud Party, and vowed to push ahead with the controversial scheme, perhaps in modified form.
"I want to say in the clearest fashion there will be another plan," he told a meeting of Likud lawmakers.
As the Prime Minister embarked on a series of consultations on whether and how to amend the plan, he made it clear he has no intention of stepping down. "I intend to continue leading the state of Israel to the best of my understanding, conscience and public duty. This is not an easy task. However, I intend to carry it through."
At the same time, Israeli opponents of the pullout celebrated yesterday by laying the cornerstone of a new residence in a Gaza settlement and moving four Jewish families into a predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.
Mr. Sharon's plan envisioned an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, home to 7,500 Jewish settlers in 21 settlements, and the evacuation of four small settlements in the West Bank by the end of 2005. But members of Likud, a traditionally pro-settler party, disagreed. They voted against the plan 60 per cent to 40 per cent in a nonbinding referendum on Sunday. But only about half of Likud's 190,000 members voted.
Opposition leader Shimon Peres said it was "unacceptable" for Likud members, who make up less than 2 per cent of the Israeli population, to determine the future of the country. He called for early elections, amid rumours that Mr. Sharon has already offered him a return to the coveted foreign-affairs portfolio in a broad-based national unity government.
Israeli officials suggested the original withdrawal plan, which was popular with Israelis and had U.S. backing, would be slightly scaled down and the new version would not be put to a Likud vote.
"I intend to consult my ministers, the Likud faction and other Knesset factions in order to examine the implications and the steps we intend to take," Mr. Sharon told Likud members of the Knesset, or parliament.
And in what appeared to be a hint that he might go it alone without the right wing of his party, or perhaps call new elections, Mr. Sharon warned: "Israel elected us to find a way to tranquillity, security and peace and promoting Israel's economy. And we intend to do this. There is no other reason for us to be here in the Knesset."
There were hints yesterday from the Prime Minister's circle that he will present the disengagement plan directly to the Israeli people, who polls indicate are overwhelmingly in favour of Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Gerald Steinberg, a political analyst at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, said Mr. Sharon might "try and detour around the Likud, basically abandoning his own party, his own core constituency and try to build a centrist Israeli political party or some sort of consensus-based new bloc."
In April, U.S. President George W. Bush threw his support behind the disengagement plan, provoking widespread Arab anger. Yesterday, the White House said it will examine options with Mr. Sharon, calling his disengagement plan "a courageous and important step towards peace."
While some U.S. commentators said the Likud rejection of the plan has undermined Mr. Bush's credibility in the Middle East, Professor Steinberg disagreed.
"It's an embarrassment for Sharon in his future dealings with the White House because he was not able to deliver on that deal, but for the U.S. government in the big picture this is not a major issue," he said.
In Gaza overnight, an Israeli attack helicopter fired a missile at a group of Palestinians in a Gaza refugee camp, wounding at least 12, three critically, residents said. Hours earlier, in a separate incident in the West Bank, Israeli troops took up positions around Palestinian president Yasser Arafat's office building in the city of Ramallah, witnesses told Associated Press. Military officials said soldiers were arresting suspects, but said the operation was not linked to Mr. Arafat.