Troops leave refugee camp residents to pick up the pieces

Saturday, May 22, 2004

RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- Residents returned to ripped-up roads and demolished buildings in this refugee camp Friday, many lingering only to gather a few possessions amid fears of more of the violence that has left 40 Palestinians dead.

Israeli tanks and troops withdrew to the edges of the Tel Sultan and Brazil areas of the Rafah camp, but the army said it was merely redeploying forces and that its 4-day-old offensive in search of arms-smuggling tunnels and militants would continue.

Israeli armored vehicles later Friday moved into new positions at the eastern entrance to Rafah town, witnesses and Palestinian security officials said. Witnesses said the army used loudspeakers to tell male residents to come out of their homes. A Rafah hospital official said two men were brought in with gunshot wounds on Friday, one in critical condition.

Israeli officials have indicated they were looking for an alternative to the mass demolition of Palestinian homes, a prospect that has brought fierce international criticism.

Already, Israeli forces have destroyed or damaged dozens of houses and flattened cars in the two neighborhoods.

"I hardly recognized my own street," said Abdel Rahim Abu Jazer, 42, a teacher. "I don't think an earthquake could do what the Israeli army did to this area."

Residents waving strips of white cloth picked their way over mounds of rubble, at one point walking near an Israeli tank that fired machine-gun rounds as they passed.

Some Palestinians rummaged through the debris, retrieving mattresses, photo albums, shoes and clothing. A preschool boy sat on the ground, scooping up sand with a broken toy bulldozer.

"I came to get some stuff from my house but there's nothing left to take," said Sami Mekawi, 28, a resident of the Brazil neighborhood. "All I see is sand and rubble and torn-down electrical poles and destroyed roads."

U.N. relief workers entered Tel Sultan, delivering food and water to some of the 25,000 residents. Johan Eriksson, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, said residents told him they were short on milk, flour and baby food.

During more than three years of Palestinian-Israeli violence, Israeli forces have made dozens of forays into the Rafah camp to destroy tunnels used to smuggle weapons across the nearby Egyptian border.

The Israeli military said 90 have been found and destroyed since 2000, though none has been discovered during the current "Operation Rainbow" offensive, launched Tuesday.

Army spokeswoman Maj. Sharon Feingold said troops had detained "dozens" of Palestinians, including suspected senior militants, and killed a local leader of the armed group Hamas.

"The operation has not ended, we have redeployed forces and allowed residents to stock up on food," Feingold said.

She said the offensive would continue "as long as necessary."

Municipal officials said at least 43 homes were demolished and dozens more damaged in the camp since the offensive began. Forty Palestinians have been killed, including gunmen and eight demonstrators hit by a tank shell.

Feingold said five houses were demolished after they were used as cover by militants to attack troops. She would not estimate how many had been damaged.

In the Brazil neighborhood, 25 houses were razed and streets were torn up, local officials said. In many cases, the facades of houses caved in or were shorn off -- damage from wide armored vehicles moving through the narrow alleys. In Tel Sultan, local officials said 10 homes were demolished and more damaged.

A key objective of the military operation is the widening of an Israeli patrol road between Rafah and the Egyptian border, which would make it more difficult for weapons smugglers to dig tunnels.

Widening the road would require the demolition of dozens of Palestinian homes, said an Israeli security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Israel's army chief told the Cabinet earlier this week that hundreds of houses would have to be razed. More than 11,000 Rafah residents have been made homeless by Israeli demolitions since 2000.

The United States, the European Union and the United Nations have criticized the Rafah operation and called for a halt to home demolitions. In a rare move, the Bush administration allowed the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the operation.

Officials said Israeli Attorney General Meni Mazuz believed the road-widening plan would not hold up in local and international courts. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they said he had instructed the army to come up with alternatives that would cause less destruction.

U.S. officials said Israel's vice premier, Ehud Olmert, assured Secretary of State Colin Powell in a meeting in Washington this week that the buffer zone would not be widened. However, Israeli security officials said Friday the army is still pushing for an expansion of the zone by at least 300 yards.

Hundreds of Israeli peace activists scuffled with police at a Gaza crossing point Friday, chanting "Peace yes, confrontation no" and calling on soldiers to defy orders and join them.

Some 5,000 Palestinian protesters chanted anti-Israeli slogans in the Jabaliya refugee camp near Gaza City, a Hamas stronghold.

Also Friday, Israel's Supreme Court rejected an appeal by human rights groups seeking to force the army to let Israeli medical teams into Rafah. The court accepted the army's argument that Palestinian ambulances were being allowed freedom of movement.

The court also denied an attempt by the groups to open an independent investigation into Wednesday's killing of eight Palestinians by tank fire at a demonstration in Rafah.

The military has apologized for the deaths but said troops fired only to deter a crowd that included gunmen. Feingold said Friday that a tank fired four shells at a vacant building near the marchers to protect undercover Israeli troops operating in the area.

Palestinians deny there were gunmen among the crowd.

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