BEIT HANUN (Gaza Strip): Nine months after Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip, anxious Palestinian residents awoke on Monday to the once all-too-familiar sight of tanks and bulldozers snaking through their farmland.

“It’s been a year since we last saw this,” said Abdullah Abu Obeida, who watched with his wife and nine children as a line of armoured vehicles rumbled through the fields towards their town.

Israeli armour began edging into the northern Beit Hanun area early in the day as the Jewish state continued to firmly reject the demands of militant groups holding an Israeli soldier and pressed on with a military offensive against Gaza.

The tank movements came one day after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who took over the helm when Ariel Sharon sank into a deep coma after suffering a stroke in January, vowed to unleash all of the army’s might to retrieve the missing soldier.

“We suffered a lot under Sharon and we had hoped Olmert would be better, but the Israelis are still terrorising us in the same way,” Abu Obeida said.

The soldier at the centre of the military action, 19-year-old corporal Gilad Shalit, was taken into custody by Islamist militants during an attack on a southern border post on June 25, sparking the worst crisis since the Hamas government was sworn in last March.

But many in Gaza do not believe that Israel’s aim is solely to release the conscript.

For a week, the population of the crowded Gaza Strip, already choked by an Israeli closure and devastated infrastructure, has been expecting a major reconquest of the territory by the Israeli army.

“It’s clear that the Israelis are not sending us all this just to free one soldier,” Abu Obeida said, counting two bulldozers, five tanks and two armoured personnel carriers from his window.

“What they want is to topple Hamas,” he said.

On Sunday, an Israeli missile struck the office of Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, in what many saw as the launch of a no-holds-barred campaign to break the back of the Islamist-led government.

In addition to its massive incursion from the south, Israeli armour closed in on the strip’s northern villages on Monday in what the army described as a routine search for explosive devices and tunnels.

Air strikes were launched and sporadic exchanges of fire broke out between the Israeli military and militants, killing at least one of them, according to witnesses and medical sources.

Local officials from all Palestinian factions went to the 25-year-old man’s house to extend their condolences to his family.

Hamas and other fighters could be seen running from house to house in Beit Hanun with rifles, anti-tank mines and rocket launchers. An AFP correspondent saw two Qassam rockets fired from Beit Hanun slice through the sky towards Israel.

The deserted streets were reminiscent of the months of curfew the area went through when it was repeatedly reoccupied by the Israeli army after the outbreak of the second intifada nearly six years ago.

The head doctor of the clinic in nearby Beit Lahiya feared an influx of wounded that his facilities would not be able to cope with.

“Since we have very little electricity, we don’t have the means to look after seriously wounded people,” Mohammed Yagi said.

“We are already packed with people suffering from mental disorders, who have not been able to get any sleep for days because of the shelling, air raids and sonic booms,” he said.—AFP

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