Suspicion is enough to condemn Arab homes: Sarah Helm in Deir el-Balah, Gaza Strip, witnesses Israel's brutal new methods for hunting wanted Palestinian gunmen

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The Independent Online
THE Israeli army unit which destroyed three houses in the Gaza Strip in their search for a wanted gunman finished off the job by ripping open wardrobes full of women's clothes, slashing them and spraying them with bullets.

Standing in the rubble in the Deir el-Balah refugee camp, an elderly woman pointed to the bullet holes in the back of a cupboard and held up cotton scarves and long tunics holed and torn apart. 'Kulshi, kulshi,' she said: everything, everything. The houses had been home to five families. By this time the single-storey, tin-roofed house no longer existed. The 35 people who had lived there, including 20 children, were made homeless by anti-tank missiles.

But still the soldiers, prowling through the collapsed structures, opened up with rifle fire, mangling the surviving kitchen pots, shattering photographs and blasting apart the television, toys, the stove and the bookshelf.

They also opened fire on an old man who happened to be walking past along the alleyway, on his way home to his wife. The riddled body of 65-year-old Mohammed Abu Koweta was dumped by the army in a muddy pond alongside the flattened homes.

The Israeli army spokesman confirmed that Mr Abu Koweta was shot dead in error during the operation. The soldier who shot him thought the elderly man was an escaping gunman. Open-fire regulations were, however, followed, said the spokesman. Twice Mr Abu Koweta, who some neighbours say was deaf, was ordered to halt. The soldier then shot at his legs. The fact that his body was found covered with bullet holes showed that he must have slipped as the soldier was opening fire, said the spokesman.

Destroying Palestinian homes is not a new weapon in Israel's arsenal of deterrence. Homes are often sealed or destroyed as a punishment for a whole family, after a member has been detained on security charges. Now, however, houses are being destroyed in military operations to facilitate the hunt for wanted men.

Palestinian leaders say the house destructions, and other draconian measures in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank, suggest the deportation of 413 Palestinians was part of a more general clampdown by Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, and has increased since December.

There have been at least 16 of these new operations since July. In December and January alone, 29 houses were attacked with anti-tank missiles, in nine separate incidents, resulting in the destruction of seven homes.

Previously, if the army wanted to arrest a wanted gunman, reported (usually on a tip-off from a Palestinian informer) to be holed up in a house, soldiers stormed the building. Now they evacuate the families and blow up the house before going in.

The army says the policy was instituted after Israeli soldiers were killed storming houses. But the spokesman could not say whether it was more effective in catching gunmen, or how many wanted men had been detained as a result. In Deir el-Balah, nobody was detained.

The breeze-block huts of Deir el-Balah, which line the golden sands of the Mediterranean, were built in the early 1950s by the United Nations relief agency, UNRWA, for Palestinian refugees who had fled the Israeli army in 1948. The families from the three destroyed houses are now living in tents, again provided by UNRWA, next to their former homes.

The families say the military assault began at 5pm, when the army surrounded the area and took up positions on a tall building about 20 yards away. Through loudhailers the families were told to come out with their hands up and the men were made to lie down, blindfolded, with their hands tied. The women rushed to gather up their children.

The soldiers waited four hours to see if anyone else would come out, and after repeatedly asking the householders whether anyone was still inside, fired several rounds of rocket-propelled grenades on to the shacks. These collapsed, and the soldiers moved in.

The army could not say whether any members of the household were to be charged with harbouring gunmen. The head of the house worst affected, Mohammed Mazour, has not been charged. They say they had 'very good information' that a wanted man was hiding in these houses, but Mr Mazour said he has never been arrested on security offences. Other family members also deny any link with Palestinian militants.

Mr Mazour and other families made homeless can apply for compensation from the Israeli authorities. If the home-owner is believed to have been involved in harbouring a gunman, however, he is unlikely to get any. According to UNRWA, there has only been one successful application since July, and only after wide publicity was given to that case. Palestinian leaders say that even where gunmen have been found in such houses the owners have had no choice but to let them in.

'I will apply to God for my compensation,' says Mr Mazour lifting his eyes to the sky.

Miaser Abu Koweta, widow of the dead man, also raises her eyes to the skies. 'My husband had just gone to visit our friends and he didn't come home,' she said, wringing her hands.

The Israeli army says she too can apply for compensation.

(Photograph omitted)