Sharon rails at ministers for criticising army

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon condemned members of his Cabinet yesterday for criticising the Israeli army's most destructive house-razing mission since the intifada began.

The Israeli Prime Minister began a cabinet meeting by accusing Labour ministers in his coalition of fuelling anti-Israeli propaganda by questioning the operation last Thursday, a day after the killing of four Israeli Bedouin soldiers by Hamas guerrillas.

Outrage over the demolition of about 60 homes at the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza – collective punishment against civilians, which violates the Geneva Conventions – has galvanised Israel's liberal minority, which has been subdued since the conflict with the Palestinians turned violent in September 2000.

The operation went ahead despite appeals from several relatives of the dead soldiers, as well as Bedouin community leaders, for the Israeli army to refrain from acts of vengeance.

Headlines in the liberal domestic press were among the most critical that Mr Sharon has faced since taking office last March. The English language edition of Ha'aretz had four articles on the subject.

Gideon Levy, a respected left-wing columnist, said the wrecking mission – which collectively punished hundreds of impoverished Palestinians by rendering them homeless in mid-winter – was a war crime.

In a stinging editorial, the newspaper described the operation as an act of "blind cruelty", a case of "destruction on a systematic collective and indiscriminate level against Palestinians, whoever they may be. As far as is known, the only sin of most of them – perhaps even all of them – was the place where they lived."

Several Labour ministers, including Shimon Peres, raised questions over the demolitions, which were followed by the sinking of two Palestinian naval boats in a Gaza City port by Israeli navy commandos, and the blowing up of another part of the already-damaged runway at the Palestinian airport in the south of the strip. "Destruction of homes causes us very bad media damage," said Mr Peres.

The row has exposed the tensions between Labour ministers and the dominant right wing within Mr Sharon's government. These are complicated by the fact that Labour's leader, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, is the Defence Minister and authorised the Gaza demolitions.

The furore has also been confused by conflicting claims over the scale of the damage. Mr Sharon said it was part of a crackdown on an "effort by the Palestinian Authority" to smuggle weapons to Rafah in Gaza from Egypt.

Most of the destroyed buildings were empty, he said, and were used by the Palestinians as cover for large tunnels through which the arms were transferred. "My role and the role of the government I lead is to provide security," he said.

But evidence gathered at the scene by correspondents and international human rights workers, and the testimony of the stricken Palestinians themselves, contradicted this, showing that the number of homes flattened was about 60. The International Committee of the Red Cross said 93 families, or about 600 people, were left homeless. They are now living in tents from the United Nations.

The Israeli army had recently won praise at home for the 3 January commando raid on the Karine-A, which was carrying 50 tons of weapons for delivery to the Palestinians.

But it was subsequently criticised for losing the public relations battle, with the foreign press wary of its claim that the shipment had been approved by Yasser Arafat. What was left of the army's brief burst of pride has now been squandered amid the ruins of Gaza.