Two soldiers killed as Gaza raid destroys 100 Palestinian homes

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Two more Israeli soldiers were killed yesterday in southern Gaza in a military operation which razed up to 100 Palestinian houses. Commanders said they were trying to find the remains of five soldiers killed by militants on Wednesday.

Two more Israeli soldiers were killed yesterday in southern Gaza in a military operation which razed up to 100 Palestinian houses. Commanders said they were trying to find the remains of five soldiers killed by militants on Wednesday.

In a black week for the Israeli army, the latest deaths, in Rafah on the Egyptian border, brought the total of soldiers killed since Tuesday to 13. In the same period, 29 Palestinians have been killed in fighting in both Rafah and Gaza, including two in the border operation yesterday.

Unofficial but well-informed estimates put the total of houses demolished in Rafah in the latest operation at about 100, an exceptionally high toll for a single operation.

The army went out of its way to insist that yesterday's comprehensive operation was limited to the task of finding the remains of the soldiers killed on Wednesday, and had nothing to do with "speculation" about a government programme of house destruction in Rafah to widen the security zone round the border patrol road where the dead soldiers' troop carrier was blown up on Wednesday.

Israel Radio said earlier that the army planned to demolish hundreds of buildings close to the road, to remove firing positions or cover for potential attackers. But an army spokesman said that a number of options were being considered as a means of increasing security in the road.

Major Sharon Feingold, a senior Israeli army spokesman, said that during the operation troops had destroyed a number of "uninhabited structures" that were used to give cover to gunmen. While some destroyed buildings may have been empty for several months, others are invariably evacuated before - sometimes immediately before - they are demolished.

The main checkpoint affording access to the southern section of Gaza has been closed for several days, preventing journalists as well as food and other aid reaching Rafah.

Associated Press's resident correspondent in Rafah said that frantic residents fled their homes waving white flags and carrying valuables in cartons and plastic bags. They even took away furniture, doors and window frames.

Lieutenant-General Moshe Yaalon, the army chief, told Israel Radio that the armoured personnel carrier was hit by a projectile fired from one of the camp's houses.

"There's a process whereby the first row of houses is abandoned and used for digging tunnels for smuggling weapons and cover for shooting," he said. "We've been forced to destroy houses here in the past and apparently we'll have to destroy more houses in the future."

But Yossi Sarid, a left wing Israeli parliamentarian, told Israel Radio that mass demolition of houses would be a war crime and warned against "razing half of the town of Rafah".

Since the outbreak of fighting in September 2000, the Israeli military has razed 1,026 houses in Rafah and damaged 767, local officials say.

The destruction of houses since the beginning of the intifada three and a half years ago has led to more than 17,000 Palestinians losing their homes, UN relief workers said.

Amid initial confusion about the deaths of the two soldiers yesterday, military sources suggested that they may have been shot in a house while helping the inhabitants to move food. Two other soldiers were injured in a house, the sources said.

A poll in the Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper yesterday showed a sharp rise in support for the plan of the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. More than 70 per cent were in favour of the plan, compared with 62 per cent before the killings of 11 soldiers in two separate attacks on troop carriers in Rafah and in Gaza City this week.

Shlomo Vishinski, a well-known actor whose son was one the soldiers killed in Rafah, has been widely quoted in the Israeli media as saying that the Israeli majority who support the Sharon plan should be able to decide the issue of withdrawal, not the 50,000 Likud members who voted against the plan to disengage and who he argues could have sealed his son's fate.

Mr Vishinski said that his son had volunteered to serve in the notoriously dangerous area of Rafah "because he didn't want to let the army be controlled by the right".

Comments