2,000 Palestinians Protest Israeli Offensive, Burn Flags

About 2,000 Palestinians protesting the Israeli military offensive in Gaza set fire to an Israeli flag and shouted "Death to Israel" Sunday as they marched in Lebanon's largest refugee camp.

Children, some in military uniforms, women and men took part in the protest in Ein el-Hilweh, Lebanon's largest refugee camp and home to some 70,000 Palestinians in the southern port city of Sidon.

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Protesters carried banners, including one that read, "The silence of the Arab and Islamic nations, the international community and the U.N. Security Council is telling Palestinian children: Die of hunger."

The 90-minute protest was organized by the Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Protesters trampled and tore Israeli flags and later set one aflame amid shouts of "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great), "Death to Israel," "Where are Arab rulers?" Intermittent cries of "Death to America" punctuated the march.

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Speakers expressed solidarity with Palestinians under siege in Gaza, called for Palestinian unity and on the Arab world to help the Palestinian people. One criticized the United States for giving support to Israel.

"America is the source of this killing, destruction and racism," said Sheik Mahmoud Jishi, a moderate Islamic cleric. He called on people in Arab and Islamic countries to rise up "to defend the Palestinians ... and stand united in the face of the Zionist aggression that is supported by the American forces of terror and evil."

Col. Khaled Aref, Fatah leader in Sidon and Ein El-Hilweh, argued that the best way for Palestinians to confront the attacks was to close ranks behind Abbas. "As we face this Zionist onslaught, we say that national unity breaks this conspiracy."

Palestinian Islamic militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad and other smaller factions did not join the protest. Speakers said nothing about the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier by militants, but focused on Palestinians' plight as a result of the military offensive on Gaza, which Israel said it launched to force the release of the soldier.

The kidnapping by militants linked to Hamas, which leads the Palestinian government, has heightened tensions with Abbas' Fatah in Gaza, and likely accounts for the absence of militant groups at Sunday's protest.

Some 350,000 Palestinians, refugees from the 1948 first Arab-Israeli war after the creation of the State of Israel and their descendants, live in squalid conditions in about a dozen camps that have developed over the years into shantytowns.

Ein El-Hilweh is the largest and the most unruly of the camps. Armed Palestinian factions run it and often fight for control of particular neighborhoods. Lebanese troops are prohibited from entering the camps, but maintain positions at their entrances to keep the guerrillas in check.

Separately, Lebanese Muslim groups held a rally in Sidon late Saturday that denounced the Israeli attacks. About 2,000 people turned out to express solidarity with the Palestinians.

In Syria, where Hamas' exiled political leadership is based, an estimated 2,000 Palestinians took part in a rally at the Yarmouk refugee camp to protest the Israeli offensive.

Children carried large Palestinian flags and chanted, "We're going to Palestine, martyrs in the millions."

Talal Nassar, an activist from Hamas, which organized the gathering along with other Palestinian groups, said the protest was to oppose "the crime against our Palestinian people."

He said the Israeli soldier would only be released if Palestinians jailed by Israel were freed.

"Our blood is not water," he said.