Rafah camp hit again by Israeli bulldozers

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The Independent Online

Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved back into the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip yesterday, just days after the Israeli army destroyed about 100 houses, leaving some 2,000 people homeless and eight, including two children, dead.

Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved back into the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip yesterday, just days after the Israeli army destroyed about 100 houses, leaving some 2,000 people homeless and eight, including two children, dead.

At the same time, the Israeli army ordered 15 Palestinians being held without trial to be permanently deported from the West Bank to Gaza - a move denounced by Israeli and international human rights groups as illegal.

Rafah refugee camp was already reeling after a three-day incursion in which the Israeli army crushed entire rows of houses with bulldozers as homeless Palestinians loaded their possessions on to carts. And yesterday the bulldozers returned.

The Israeli army claims the aim is to find and destroy tunnels under the nearby Egyptian border which are used by Palestinian militants to smuggle in guns and ammunition. But after the last incursion, in which the Israelis destroyed as many as 100 houses to find just three tunnels, they were accused of inflicting collective punishment on the Palestinians of Rafah.

The Israeli army at first disputed the number of houses destroyed. But after the figures were confirmed by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, and by independent news reports, the Israeli commander in the region, Colonel Eyal Eisenberg, said: "I want people to ask how many houses we have not demolished, not how many we have."

There were no reports of any fatalitiesyesterday, but six Palestinians were said to be wounded. The Israeli army sealed off the refugee camp from the outside world, as it did in the first raid. The raid began with helicopters firing into the camp before dawn, witnesses. said. Then some 40 tanks and armoured bulldozers advanced and snipers took up positions. There was less resistance than in the first raid, when militants fired shoulder-launched rockets and threw grenades, the Israeli army reported.

The army said the incursion could last several days, but there are fears that troops may stay longer. That would follow a pattern over the past 18 months in which it has advanced into Palestinian cities, then withdrawn, only to return to stay a short time later.

Palestinian militants do use tunnels to smuggle small arms across the border. But the Israeli army has for some time been demolishing houses in an effort to create a buffer zone, and the raids have allowed it to accelerate the destruction.

Yesterday's expulsion of 15 alleged militants from the west Bank to Gaza could be the forerunner of further deportations. The army said it wanted to do the same to more Palestinian prisoners.

The move has been denounced as a breach of the Geneva Conventions. Although Article 78 allows an occupying power to "assign residence" to defuse security threats, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said it referred only to cases of immediate danger. "This doesn't sound to me like a clear danger to state security," said a B'Tselem spokesman, Noam Hoffstater. "It looks like they're trying to push the boundaries further."

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