Israeli army to destroy hundreds more homes

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The Independent Online

The Israeli cabinet vowed yesterday to step up military operations in Gaza, 18 hours after the largest anti-war demonstration in four years backed withdrawal from the occupied strip of land and a return to the negotiating table.

The Israeli cabinet vowed yesterday to step up military operations in Gaza, 18 hours after the largest anti-war demonstration in four years backed withdrawal from the occupied strip of land and a return to the negotiating table.

Shaul Mofaz, the Defence Minister, told ministers that the army would create a "different reality" along the Gaza-Egypt border to prevent arms smuggling. The Israeli High Court also lifted a ban yesterday on the army's programme of house demolitions in Rafah, the town on the border.

Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, is said to remain determined to disengage from Gaza, despite the opposition of his party. But the hard line taken by the cabinet yesterday suggests he is also determined to prevent Palestinian militants claiming that the withdrawal is any kind of retreat.

He said: "We will not allow Palestinian terrorism to attain the capabilities it aspires to, which would threaten the heart of the nation even after our disengagement from Gaza."

After a week in which 29 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers died, Mr Mofaz was quoted by an official as saying, "We will deepen the fighting".

Mr Sharon told the cabinet that Israel had asked Egypt for assistance in halting weapons smuggling by militants across the border into Gaza. He was seeking variations to the Camp David agreement, which led to peace with Egypt in 1979, that would allow Egypt to move more troops up to its side of the border with Gaza. Mr Sharon also said he had asked the United States for help.

Israel Radio quoted Moshe Ya'alon, the army chief of staff, as telling the cabinet that Egypt had so far done little to prevent weapons being smuggled. He said militants were trying to bring Katyusha rockets into Gaza. He also said that the homes destroyed had been empty. The High Court's decision paves the way for the demolition of hundreds more homes in Rafah by the army.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency says that 88 buildings have already been destroyed, with 1,064 Palestinians being made homeless.

The High Court judgment said the army was entitled to carry out demolitions along the buffer zone on the border for security reasons if the military determined that soldiers' lives were in danger, or "according to operational needs". Where this was not the case, the army would have to publish demolition plans to allow time for legal proceedings to be brought, the judges said.

The demolitions were criticised in Jordan yesterday by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, who said: "We know that Israel has a right for self-defence but the kind of action they are taking in Rafah with the destruction of Palestinian homes we oppose. We don't think that is productive."

General Powell also rebuked Yasser Arafat for a speech on Saturday in which he used a Koranic verse urging Muslims to "terrorise the enemy", saying the Palestinian President was making it "exceptionally difficult" to move the peace forward.

At the Israel-Gaza Strip border, Israeli soldiers killed four Palestinians as they tried to cross into Israel unobserved last night, Israel Radio reported. Neither the Israeli army nor Palestinian officials made any immediate comment on the incident. Earlier in the day soldiers found and detonated a large bomb in the same area.

Israeli air force missiles struck a building in Gaza City yesterday, housing the political branch of Mr Arafat's Fatah group and another belonging to the pro-Hamas al-Risala newspaper. Nobody was inside either office at the time.

Palestinian sources said several bystanders, including two children, were wounded in the attack on Fatah's office. The Israeli army said the targets had been "focal points of terrorist activity", and the building was used by its military wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.

Ahmed Halless, Fatah's secretary general in the Gaza Strip, said the Fatah site was a cultural centre. "Aggression will not bring peace. Violence will bring more violence," he said.

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