BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip – Hundreds of Palestinians (search) demonstrated Tuesday after a five-day Israeli invasion damaged farms and buildings, but in a rare twist, their wrath was directed at Palestinian militants for inviting the attack by firing rockets from their property.
Two hours after Israeli troops left, about 600 angry residents of the town of 35,000 took to the streets in a spontaneous protest, complaining that the militants had caused Israel (search) to destroy 15 houses and uproot thousands of olive, citrus and date palm trees. It was a rare outburst; most Palestinian demonstrations are aimed at Israel.
The protesters blocked a main road with trash cans, rocks and burning tires in a show of outrage against the militants. Most of the rockets are launched at towns inside Israel by members of the militant Islamic movement, Hamas (search).
"They [the militants] claim they are heroes," said Mohammed Zaaneen, 30, a farmer, as he carried rocks into the street. "They brought us only destruction and made us homeless. They used our farms, our houses and our children ... to hide."
Israeli forces pulled back to the edge of the town, Beit Hanoun, a letup that came despite a wave of five Palestinian homicide bombings that killed 12 people in Israel in addition to the attackers. The pullback suggested Israel might not undertake a large-scale punitive military operation, as it has in the past, so as not to weaken the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.
In the West Bank town of Ramallah, Israeli forces on Tuesday arrested a top Palestinian intelligence officer, Ahmed Birkawi, who was suspected of involvement in shooting attacks against Israelis, the military said. It added that until recently, Birkawi was sheltered in Arafat's office compound.
Interviewed in Gaza by Israel TV's Channel 10, Abbas repeated his denunciation of the recent homicide attacks claimed by Muslim militants. "They sabotage the process the same as Israeli occupation sabotages the process," he said. "The whole situation is tragic, the attacks in Israel and the destruction on our side."
President Bush telephoned Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday. It was Bush's first talk with Abbas and came on the same day Sharon was to have met with Bush in Washington.
Sharon, who called off the trip because of the bombings, told Bush he would meet soon with Abbas to discuss ways to improve security, adding, "it's clear that the Palestinians need to begin seriously fighting terrorism in order to move forward," according to a statement from Sharon's office.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush "stressed the need for all parties to take concrete steps" to stop violence and resume peace talks.
Abbas was appointed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who gave in to intense international pressure to share power. But Arafat is seen by some critics as trying to cling to power and undermine Abbas, his longtime deputy.
On Tuesday, Arafat issued an order removing the regional governors from the authority of the Interior Ministry to his own office, a senior Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity. Abbas is the interior minister; the move is seen as another attempt by Arafat to limit Abbas' powers.
Abbas has said he will stop militants from carrying out attacks against Israel. However, Abbas and Sharon disagree over methods and timing. Sharon insists on a Palestinian crackdown on militant groups, disarming cells and imprisoning leaders, while Abbas favors dialogue.
"We asked them to work as political parties, Abbas said in an interview with Al-Arabiya TV, broadcast Tuesday. "We don't seek clashing or a civil war."
Also, Israel demands that the crackdown begin before Israel makes any of the moves mandated by the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map" -- easing travel restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza, pulling troops back from Palestinian cities and towns and halting construction of Jewish settlements.
The top U.N. official for the Middle East warned Tuesday that if homicide attacks don't stop and Israel doesn't take concrete step to ease curbs on Palestinians, Abbas will fall.
"If this issue is not resolved, this Cabinet might not be a long lived Cabinet," Terje Roed-Larsen said at U.N. headquarters in New York. "Because if the terror continues, the peace process will be derailed once again."
Meanwhile, Israeli troops moved back to the outskirts of Beit Hanoun in northeast Gaza but continued to hold territory inside the Gaza fence, where militants often set up and fire primitive Qassam rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, about half a mile away. The small, unguided rockets have crashed into Sderot many times over the past year, causing some damage but no serious injuries.
During the Israeli takeover, eight Palestinians were killed in clashes -- four gunmen and four teens, ages 13, 15 and 17. Three of the teens were throwing stones at Israeli tanks when they were shot by troops. Sixty-five residents were wounded, including 20 under the age of 15, doctors said.