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Gaza Operation Draws Unusual Criticism in Israel

Mideast: Cabinet ministers speak out against the demolition of refugee homes.


RAFAH, Gaza Strip — The Israeli army's demolition of dozens of refugee homes on the Gazan side of the border with Egypt triggered rare protests Sunday from Cabinet ministers and journalists who branded the action excessive and inhumane.

"The destruction of homes causes us very bad media damage. In the matter of destroying homes, we have to be very, very careful," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Israel Radio. He went on to insist, however, that Israel had demolished only unoccupied dwellings in the operation Thursday. It did so, Peres said, to fight smuggling of arms from Egypt through tunnels dug under the structures.

Others were not so restrained in their criticism of an operation that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency said destroyed 52 dwellings and left 411 people homeless.

Writing in the daily newspaper Haaretz, Zeev Schiff, a respected military analyst, called the operation "destruction itself, an action that reflects shamefully on the [Israel Defense Forces] and us all."

In a front-page analysis, Schiff described the operation as "an act of undisguised ruthlessness, a military act devoid of humanitarian and diplomatic logic." He said it had been approved by the "top of the political and military hierarchy," who imposed a single restriction: No civilians should be killed.

The army hotly disputed the U.N. agency's inventory of the destruction and displacement. The army spokesman's office said 22 structures were leveled and insisted that all of them were empty, their occupants having been driven away months ago by fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen.

Normally, the army's actions against Palestinian civilians elicit little criticism from coalition members, the media or the public, who regard road closures, sieges of Palestinian towns and villages and other measures as defensive acts in a low-intensity conflict that began in September 2000. But the size of the Rafah operation, and the fact that the army did not say that the residents themselves were suspected of terrorist actions, triggered the flurry of protests.

Sunday morning, Cabinet ministers from the center-left Labor Party criticized the demolitions on Israel Radio, saying images of homeless families--most of them refugees--harm Israel's standing abroad. Salah Tarif, a minister without portfolio, demanded that the government supply anyone made homeless with a trailer.

Culture and Sports Minister Matan Vilnai, a retired general, said Israel needed to carry out the demolitions for security reasons but could have eased the damage caused to families.

"You can take four or five caravans [trailers] 600 meters [660 yards] away and say: 'These are for you. In this area you can live,' " Vilnai told Israel Radio. "A little thought and it could have been done differently."

The protesting ministers were in turn "harshly reprimanded" for their comments by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer in the Cabinet meeting, Israel Radio said. Sharon reportedly admonished ministers to wait for the army's version of events before passing judgment, saying their comments aided anti-Israeli sentiment abroad.

Israel has destroyed hundreds of Palestinian homes since the outbreak of fighting, but never on the scale carried out in the predawn hours Thursday, a day after two Palestinian militants from Rafah shot four Israeli military personnel to death at a nearby army outpost.

The U.N. relief agency initially said that the army destroyed 68 homes in an area that it said houses 89,000 refugees. On Sunday, the agency scaled back its count of the homes destroyed to 52 and said that 88 families, or 411 people, were displaced.

Jamal Hamad, deputy public information officer for the U.N. agency in Gaza, said it based its final count on the testimony of families who said they had been displaced and had applied to it for aid.

The International Committee of the Red Cross put the number of homeless at 93 families, or about 600 people, basing its figures on the number of emergency kits it handed out to people who said they had been displaced.

B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, said it conducted a "thorough investigation" at the site Thursday and found that 60 homes had been destroyed and 112 families displaced.

"House demolitions are a blatant violation of human rights and contravene international humanitarian law, which forbids destruction of property, collective punishment and reprisals," the organization said in a press release.

But the army insisted that the homes were empty shells serving as cover for Palestinian gunmen who fired from them at patrolling Israeli troops.

"We did not see anyone leaving the homes, either before or during the operation," Brig. Gen. Israel Ziv, commander of the Gaza Strip, told Israel Radio.

The "Block O" neighborhood, where the homes were demolished, has been a hotbed of violence since the Palestinian revolt erupted.

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