Schoolboy Mohammed Abu Marasa's brief life ended in a splash of blood on a gravestone. The 15-year-old was cut down by flying metal as he ran through a cemetery, desperate to escape the Israeli F-16 war plane pulverizing a nearby Palestinian security compound.
Two people were killed here yesterday, and more than 80 wounded - most of them children - as the Israeli fighters and attack helicopters pounded eight Palestinian security installations: four in Gaza and four in the West Bank.
The first F-16 to scream across a winter sky towards the walled compound of the Palestinian preventative security force created instant chaos. A terrified population poured into the streets. Teachers at the four schools that surround the compound in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City sent their charges home, and children ran for cover, lugging their satchels across the sprawling cemetery that borders the installation.
Fearing another attack, Palestinian boys run through a cemetery next to the Preventive Security Service office, which was damaged in an Israeli army missile attack in Gaza City Tuesday Dec. 4, 2001. The attack on the Palestinian security installation, sent hundreds running for cover. One boy was killed and local doctors said more than 100 people were injured. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
"Mohammed was running for his life. He did not know he was taking himself to his grave," said Samih al-Madhoun, another boy, aged 14.
Instead, he was cut down in this congregation of the dead. "Everyone is going to taste death and we shall make trials of you with evil and with good, and to us you will be returned," the inscription reads on the gravestone where he fell.
Ten minutes later, as rescue workers were trying to cut through the chaos, and more children were scrambling through the cemetery - either to escape or to get a look at the destruction - the F-16s returned.
Doctors at Gaza's Shifa hospital said many of the wounded were hit in the second attack, including an ambulance attendant who had arrived to evacuate the wounded in the first bombing, and a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy.
"I was walking home past the preventative security building when the bomb threw me off the ground, and something fell on me. I looked at my hand, and it was full of blood," said Ahmed Awad Ayub, a 15-year-old being wheeled into surgery. Doctors said he could lose the use of his right hand.
Yesterday's bombings - the heaviest onslaught on the West Bank and Gaza since the start of the Palestinian revolt 14 months ago - were Israel's retaliation for a weekend of carnage visited on Haifa and Jerusalem by Hamas suicide bombers. Twenty-five people lost their lives in the attacks.
No Hamas offices were targeted in yesterday's attacks. Instead, Israel focused its wrath on the personal symbols of Yasser Arafat. The strikes hit Gaza City and the southern Khan Yunis refugee camp, as well as the West Bank towns of Ramallah, Tulkaram and Qalqiliya, targeting offices of the Palestinian leader's security forces as well as his Force 17 security detail, which Israel has declared a terrorist organization. In Ramallah, the missiles struck perilously close to Mr Arafat, punching into a building 50 meters from his security compound. Aides said he had been taken to an underground shelter when the helicopters loomed into view.
Israeli officials described the air attacks as a message: Mr Arafat had to round up and jail the gunmen and suicide bombers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad - and members of his own Fatah militia - or the consequences would be dire.
"The purpose was to send a clear military message... 'Friends, we've had enough, take the responsibility that you have and stop the terrorism,'" said the Israeli army spokesman, Brigadier-General Ron Kitrey.
For Gazans, who turned out in their thousands to gawk at the destruction yesterday, it made little sense. The preventative security forces are Mr Arafat's main instrument for arresting militants.
"How is this going to help Mr Arafat jail people or put an end to what Israel calls terrorist attacks?" asked General Mahmoud Abu Marzouk, Gaza's civil defense chief, pulling up to a scene of destruction.
The two bombs that landed on the compound yesterday smashed through four stories of concrete, and gouged a huge crater in the ground below. The circle of destruction spread for several hundred meters: ripping olive trees from their roots and steel shutters off shop fronts, and showering glass on to families who took cover in their homes.
"I was watching television with my grandmother and al-Jazeera was showing the missiles hitting Mr Arafat's offices in Ramallah, when the windows fell in on me and we were covered with glass," said Mahmoud Misabeh, 18.
Another jet roared overhead, and three bright constellations appeared - more bombs - hovering against a cloudy sky before dropping on a national security building in the north of Gaza. Hundreds of screaming people jumped over gravestones to make their escape.
The wave of attacks began in the morning with armored bulldozers laying waste to the Gaza airstrip, a humiliating act intended to impress on Mr Arafat the gravity of his predicament. The Palestinian leader remained trapped in Ramallah where he accused Mr Sharon of plotting his destruction.
Mr Arafat said the Israeli prime minister was trying to sabotage his efforts to crack down on militants at a time when Washington is adamant that he bring Hamas and Islamic Jihad to heel. President George Bush notched the pressure up yesterday by freezing the assets of organizations he said were funding Hamas.
"They don't want me to succeed and for this he is escalating his military activities," Mr Arafat told CNN. "He does not want a peace process to start."
The bombing campaign put an immediate halt to a drive by Mr Arafat's security forces to arrest militants. Gen Marzouk said the prisoners being held in Gaza - such as in the preventative security compound - were no longer behind bars. "Some were released, some escaped, and some were wounded," he said. "Over 70 were arrested, but I don't think they are there anymore."
There were similar reports from the West Bank, prompting Mr Arafat to sack his security commander in Tulkaram for freeing his prisoners.
But Gen Marzouk said the crackdown was doomed. "Look around you. There are thousands of people in the streets. How can Mr Arafat arrest people in this situation? Mr Sharon wants Mr Arafat to keep on arresting people and to cause a civil war. But we will not have a civil war."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001