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Israel Flattens Buildings in Gaza Strip

Mideast: Army says it targeted Palestinian gunmen, but U.N. official declares 114 families were made homeless. Hopes of cease-fire are dashed.


JERUSALEM — The United Nations said the Israeli army demolished dozens of Palestinian homes in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on Thursday, the day after Palestinian gunmen shot dead an Israeli army officer and three soldiers at a nearby outpost.

Early this morning, army tanks and bulldozers destroyed the runway at the Palestinian-controlled Gaza International Airport close to Rafah, an Israeli army spokesman said. The airport, a cherished symbol of Palestinian national aspirations, has been shut down or damaged many times by the Israelis since it opened in 1998.

Witnesses said that more than half a dozen tanks guarded bulldozers as they ripped up the runway. The Palestinians had not yet finished repairing damage from the last Israeli incursion into the airport, on Dec. 4.

Israel Radio said that the army also cut the main north-south road that connects Rafah to Gaza City in the north and that it would take a series of unspecified "other steps" in retaliation for the slaying of the troops.

An Israeli military source in Gaza said that in Rafah, the army knocked down only 13 buildings that had provided cover for gunmen and concealed entrances to tunnels through which Palestinians smuggled arms from Egypt. But Palestinians charged that the destruction was in retaliation for Wednesday's attack on the army outpost. The two gunmen who assaulted the army position--and who were killed during the attack--were from Rafah.

The latest developments dashed hopes here that a cease-fire to end more than 15 months of bloodshed was within reach. A weeklong lull in killings that ended with Wednesday's assault on the outpost had raised hopes that U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni might be close to solidifying a cease-fire and moving the sides back to talks.

The fresh cycle of violence, coupled with Israel's capture last week of a ship loaded with 50 tons of arms that Israel says were purchased from Iran by the Palestinian Authority, has raised questions about what Zinni can achieve if he returns here as expected Jan. 18.

After Thursday's demolitions by the Israeli army, the militant organization Islamic Jihad announced that it was rescinding its decision to honor Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Dec. 16 demand that all Palestinian groups halt attacks on Israelis. Islamic Jihad and Hamas, another militant Islamic group, had carried out a series of deadly suicide bombings inside Israel before Arafat issued his demand.

Meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah with Mohammed Barakeh, an Israeli Arab member of Israel's parliament, Arafat described the bulldozing of the Rafah homes as "a crime against humanity." The Palestinian leader said the destruction would make it hard to continue his efforts to achieve a cease-fire.

But even before the demolitions, Arafat's quest to compel compliance by militants was in trouble. Hamas claimed responsibility for Wednesday's assault on the Israeli outpost, although the group also had promised to halt attacks within Israel. Arafat's security forces have met with resistance when they have tried to arrest leading militants, and Israel has dismissed as insignificant dozens of arrests that the Palestinian Authority has made.

As Palestinian families picked through the broken concrete and twisted metal of their crushed homes Thursday, Israelis buried three of those killed in the ambush on the border outpost. The dead were members of a volunteer Bedouin reconnaissance unit deployed along the Israeli-Egyptian border.

At the funeral of Maj. Ashraf Awayesh Mazariv in the Israeli Arab village of Zarzir, Hassan Heib, head of the village council, called on the government to refrain from carrying out retaliatory strikes to avenge the deaths of the four Arab soldiers.

"Understand our distress," Heib appealed to the government. "We, too, are a part of Islam," he said, in a poignant summary of the dilemma many of Israel's minority Arab citizens say the fighting poses for them. Heib urged the government to resolve the conflict by returning to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Sharon Says Arafat Will Stay Confined to City

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Thursday that the government will reevaluate its attitude toward the Palestinian Authority "in light of its failure to take any measures to disband the terror organizations, arrest the terrorists, and collect illegal arms and hand them over to the Americans for removal from the area."

Sharon told activists from his Likud Party that he intends to confine Arafat to his Ramallah headquarters until he hands over the killers of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, who was assassinated in October. "And if he [Arafat] has to sit there for years, so he will sit there for years," Sharon said.

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