Israel Searches for Dead Soldiers' Remains

Hundreds of Israeli troops fanned out along the Egyptian border Thursday to search for remains of five comrades killed in the bombing of a military vehicle, while Israeli missile strikes on a Palestinian refugee camp killed 11 people and wounded 29 others.

The five soldiers were killed Wednesday when Palestinians blew up an Israeli armored vehicle, the second such attack in two days. In three days of rapidly escalating violence, 11 Israeli soldiers and 27 Palestinians have been killed since. At least 235 Palestinians have been wounded.

Early Thursday, Israeli forces pulled out of Gaza City (search) following the biggest offensive in the area in years. The military said it had completed its search for body parts from six soldiers killed in the first bombing, a huge explosion that destroyed an armored vehicle on Tuesday.

The army left behind a swath of destruction in Gaza City: A multi-story building was destroyed, scores of houses were damaged, agricultural land was uprooted and local infrastructure was pulverized.

The army said the damage resulted from Palestinian resistance and the impact of the explosion that destroyed the armored vehicle. "There was a lot of collateral damage over a large area," said military spokeswoman Maj. Sharon Feingold.

The escalating violence renewed debate in Israel over its continuing presence in Gaza, where 7,500 Jewish settlers live among 1.3 million Palestinians. Israeli commentators said the violence was increasingly reminiscent of Israel's guerrilla war in Lebanon that ended with a sudden pullout in 2000.

Following Wednesday's armored vehicle attack, as many as 1,000 Israeli soldiers and dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers fanned out in the border area between Gaza and Egypt (search).

The forces continued to search Thursday for body parts, which were scattered over a large area, and secured the narrow road near the Rafah refugee camp where the attack took place.

Israeli officials said Egypt was assisting in the recovery effort. Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the army chief, told Israel Radio that Cairo had agreed to allow army rabbis to search for remains on the Egyptian side of the border. There was no immediate comment from Egypt.

The vehicle that exploded was carrying a ton of explosives, used to blow up weapons-smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, military sources said. The army said it had been attacked by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The force of the blast sent body parts flying up to a half a mile away, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The dual attacks dealt a tough blow to the standing of Israel's military and raised new questions about its continuing presence in Gaza.

A bereaved father of one of the soldiers harshly criticized the government, giving new sting to the debate.

Shlomo Vishinsky, a well-known actor, blamed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party (search) for his son Lior's death, saying the young man had been a "patsy" of the party's hard-line policies.

"I want the funeral cortege to leave from the Likud headquarters, so that Lior's death will not have been in vain, so that other mothers will not have to suffer," he told the Yediot Ahronot daily. "It's clear that no one wants to be in Gaza, except the members of the Likud."

Sharon has called for evacuating Gaza and uprooting the 21 Jewish settlements there. But Likud members — less than 2 percent of Israel's population — overwhelmingly rejected the proposal in a nonbinding vote on May 2.

Opinion polls have shown that a solid majority of the general public favored the plan, and Sharon has pledged to push forward with the proposal.

Dovish Israeli politicians said the violence would persuade Israelis of the need to leave Gaza. A similar debate over Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon — a bloody war against Hezbollah guerrillas — led to an Israel withdrawal in 2000.

In new violence, Israeli helicopters fired at least five missiles into Rafah, Palestinian sources said. One of the missiles killed seven people, and an attack several hours later killed four others, including a 15-yar-old boy, hospital workers said.

Palestinians said a 19-year-old man in Rafah was killed by Israeli gunfire.

The army said it had fired missiles at armed militants. Residents said at least four of the dead were militants.

Later Wednesday, Israeli gunboats shelled the Gaza shoreline. There were no further details.

The bloody back-to-back attacks on Israeli forces in Gaza reversed a trend of "routine" Israeli operations in Palestinian areas in recent months, in which dozens of Palestinians were killed and wounded but Israeli casualties were few.

Tuesday's attack in Gaza City was especially gruesome. Militants displayed soldiers' body parts for TV cameras, prompting the Israeli offensive.

Israel pulled out of the city's Zeitoun neighborhood after militants agreed to return soldiers' body parts in a deal worked out with the Palestinian Authority and Egypt.

Israel had insisted it would not negotiate with the militants over the body parts and was apparently not an official part of the agreement to return them. Israel had asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to mediate.

Though some of the corpses were incomplete, the army said late Wednesday that pathologists positively identified all six soldiers, and four would be buried on Thursday.