UN urges Israelis to let Palestinians bury their dead

Israel was urged to let bereaved families in the besieged Tel Sultan district of Rafah to bury their dead as the country's cabinet was split by an angry row over the continuing demolition of homes in the town.

The United Nations made a plea yesterday for a unilateral "humanitarian gesture" over the burials. This follows mounting unrest among the 25,000 residents of Tel Sultan at the inability, so far, of the families of the 16 people killed since the Israeli army made its incursion into the area last Monday to reclaim and bury the bodies. The dead from Tel Sultan were yesterday still laid out in a refrigeration room belonging to a flower and vegetable grower on the town's outskirts. It has been used since early last week as an overflow mortuary.

Most of the bodies - eight of them in flags of armed factions, signifying they were militants, and the rest draped in white sheets and apparently civilians - have been there since last Tuesday. The UN Relief Works Agency (Unrwa), the UN agency responsible for providing aid to Palestinian refugees, believes that fury over the issue played a big part in the chaotic scenes on Saturday when a large and angry crowd attacked a UN convoy entering the town with a truckload of milk powder.

Islamic and Jewish traditions require bodies to be buried as soon as possible - ideally within 24 hours of death. This was one reason that the seizure by Palestinian militants of body parts of Israeli soldiers killed in two attacks in Gaza two weeks ago was such a sensitive issue.

The army insisted that the issue was one for co-ordination with the Palestinian Authority and that if notified by the PA of planned burials it would arrange transport for the families from Tel Sultan to the burials.

But Peter Hansen, secretary general of Unrwa, said that the Israeli government had not replied to a letter he had written on the subject on Saturday and added that if co-ordination was required it was "high time" Israel told the Palestinians of this. "This is a matter of urgency. There are bodies which have lain unburied for nearly a week," he said.

At yesterday's Israeli cabinet meeting, the Justice Minister, Tommy Lapid, attacked the continuing demolitions in the Rafah refugee camp, which has a population of 90,000 and was set up in 1949 for Palestinian refugees who fled or were driven from their homes after the 1948 war. Mr Lapid, most of whose family died in the Holocaust, inflamed colleagues, including Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, by saying that television pictures of people scrabbling for medicine in the camp reminded him of his grandmother. On Israel Radio later he insisted he had not been comparing the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza to the Holocaust.

"The demolition of homes in Rafah must stop. It is not humane, not Jewish, and causes us grave damage in the world. At the end of the day they'll kick us out of the UN, try those responsible in the international court in the Hague and no one will want to speak to us," he said.

Mr Sharon said yesterday in a speech that he would put a plan to withdraw the army from the Gaza Strip to a vote of the cabinet by the end of the month.

The army continued to deny any policy of "systematic" demolitions insisting that some "structures" are accidentally "grazed" by tanks or have to be destroyed because they are used by militants. "You have to realise this is a battlezone," an army spokesman said.

Unrwa said yesterday Israeli troops had raided its Jenin office, threatened and detained the UN official heading the Jenin Camp reconstruction project, Paul Wolstenholme.

The Israeli military denied the raid, saying it held the official for his safekeeping while soldiers were arresting Palestinians. Unrwa said the soldiers fired a shot in the direction of Mr Wolstenholme, blindfolded, handcuffed and then detained him for three hours.On 22 November 2002, an Israeli soldier shot and killed Iain Hook, the then project manager.

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