Israel pulls army out of Rafah after international outcry over killings

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The Independent Online

The Israeli Army finally pulled out of Rafah yesterday - for the moment at least - after a week-long operation, that has left 45 Palestinians dead, 67 homes demolished, and a trail of destroyed or damaged farmland, roads and infrastructure.

The Israeli Army finally pulled out of Rafah yesterday - for the moment at least - after a week-long operation, that has left 45 Palestinians dead, 67 homes demolished, and a trail of destroyed or damaged farmland, roads and infrastructure.

For the Palestinians of Rafah, the worst afflicted in Gaza since the beginning of the present uprising, the incursion into three sections of the town's sprawling refugee camp almost certainly generated more fear than any other in the last three and half years.

It was preceded by an operation four days earlier close to the heavily guarded Egypt-Gaza border in which 15 Palestinians were killed and 88 homes demolished as Israeli forces hunted for the body parts of five soldiers killed when their armoured troop carrier was blown up by militants.

But it is Operation Rainbow, which began last Monday when armoured forces rumbled into the Rafah refugee camp's neighbourhood of Tel Sultan, that Said Zorab will remember. The town's mayor, now grappling with the task of making good the devastation, declared in his office yesterday: "This has been the worst nine days of my life".

Yet the question now being asked in sections of the Israeli media and public is whether the achievements have so far been worth the price.

For the rooting out of militants and the hunting down of tunnels used for smuggling weapons may not have been quite as comprehensive as the advance publicity - comparing the operation with the West Bank Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 - suggested it might be. Brigadier General Shmuel Zakai, in overall charge of the operation, said on Monday that its goals had "been achieved". Three tunnels have been found in varying degrees of operational readiness. According to Army figures, 41 militants have been killed during the two operations and 10 suspects have been detained out of a total of 100 arrested.

While most house demolitions, and much of the shooting, were in the Brazil neighbourhood, the tanks and snipers stayed longest in Tel Sultan, not usually regarded as one of the top militant strongholds in the town. Because of the relatively wide streets, Israeli forces find it somewhat easier to move through the district than in the maze of alleys running through the packed neighbourhoods of Yebna, Bashit and Shabura, which is closer to the centre of town, and known to be a particularly active base for armed militants. Indeed several residents have said during the past week that, fearing an incursion, they sent their families to Tel Sultan assuming - unwisely as it turned out - it would be the safest place.

Many Palestinians here contend the Israelis wanted to improve their troops' morale, after the killings of 13 soldiers in Rafah and Gaza City, with the minimum of danger to their own forces. But at least one Israeli media assumption is that the Army had intended a wider incursion but decided to stay its hand, perhaps partly because of the adverse international reaction to the deaths of civilians, including nine children under 16, but especially because of the carnage which ended the protesters' march on Tel Sultan last Wednesday. (The Army admits to a total of 14 civilians killed overall but Palestinian sources put the figure significantly higher.)

According to Amir Rapoport, the military commentator on Maariv newspaper, "The fact that the [Army] left Rafah - and the bottom line is that this was because of criticism in the world and Israel, and because it feared a humanitarian disaster - without even daring to enter the Shabura neighbourhood, is to a degree a failure as is the fact that no ammunition stores were found." Against, this he argued, lay the fact that no Israeli soldiers were hurt, despite heavy exchanges of gunfire.

The Israeli Army does not take kindly to suggestions, however qualified, of "failure". Which may be a reason why at least one senior Army officer was quoted as suggesting the operation was not over and the forces were now taking a "deep breath".

The risks, to both sides, of incursions into districts like Shabura, are great. But it may be premature to assume that the Israeli forces have abandoned any notion of a fresh and wider assault on the city. Which is why the residents of Rafah, at any rate, are assuming no such thing.

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