GAZA CITY -- A Palestinian bulldozer yesterday demolished the seaside homes of three senior officers who built illegally on public land in Gaza, the start of what the Palestinian government promises will be a relentless campaign against corruption.
Palestinians, fed up with years of corruption by security officials, hailed the move as an important sign that no one is above the law.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was elected, in part, on a pledge to overhaul the government and security services, where top officials routinely misuse their power for personal gain.
In recent weeks, he has forced top security leaders into retirement and promised to streamline and restructure the security services, which grew increasingly corrupt during the chaos of 4Æ years of fighting with Israel.
''The Palestinian Authority policy is clear. No one is above the law, and we will work until we put an end to the lawlessness in the Palestinian areas," said Tawfik Abu Khoussa, spokesman for Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef.
To carry out Abbas's mission, one bulldozer guarded by seven jeeps and 30 Palestinian officers entered the Sudania area on the coast of northern Gaza yesterday morning to crush the three homes, which were being built by a major, a lieutenant colonel, and a colonel on public land they illegally seized. The operation encountered no resistance.
Construction on the two-story concrete houses, which had a clear view of the Mediterranean 300 feet away, was almost finished. One house was surrounded by a small flower garden. After the demolition crews left, some sheep and two donkeys fed on the remains of the garden.
Later yesterday, Palestinian police arrested three Hamas militants carrying homemade rockets in their car, the Interior Ministry spokesman said. This occurred a few minutes after militants fired two rockets at an Israeli town just outside Gaza. A Hamas spokesman said the militants did not fire the rockets.
Palestinian officials said yesterday's demolitions -- which occurred after Abbas ordered the destruction of hundreds of illegal shops, cafés, and kiosks near the beach in Gaza City in January -- signaled a wider crackdown on corruption.
''The demolition of the three houses today is the beginning, and any other abuse is going to be resolved the same way," Abu Khoussa said.
The demolition harkened to Israel's destruction of hundreds of Palestinian houses as punishment for terrorist acts over the past few years of conflict, but instead of condemning the move, Palestinians praised their leaders.
''When my family told me this morning over the phone that the police and bulldozers came to knock down the house of the colonel, I told them they were dreaming. But now I see that the dream became a reality," said Hassan Abdel Khaleq, a nearby resident. ''I hope that all the violators will be punished."
Political analyst Hani Masri said that while Abbas's move was important, much more must be done to end corruption in the security services, which need ''a revolution from inside."
Also yesterday, an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian militant wanted in a Tel Aviv suicide bombing were killed in a shoot-out that capped a recent rise in violence that has tested a three-month-old truce between Israel and the Palestinians. The Israeli soldier was the first killed by militants since the truce was declared Feb. 8.
Yesterday's clash began when troops raiding the West Bank village of Saideh cornered two militants, who began shooting, killing one soldier and lightly wounding another. The soldiers returned fire, killing one militant and wounding the other, the army said.
The army identified the soldier as Staff Sergeant Dan Talasnikov, 21.
The dead militant was identified as Shafiq Abdul Ghani, 34, from the extremist group Islamic Jihad. Abdul Ghani was arrested by the Palestinian security services as a suspect in a Feb. 25 suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv nightclub that killed five Israelis. He fled a Palestinian prison last month.