Israeli Rights Activists Criticize Gaza Demolitions

Army destroys 30 buildings in biggest action since intifadah began

`THEY came in the morning and told my father-in-law that they're going to demolish the shops,'' said Khitam al-Alul, a Palestinian refugee from Bureij, in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. ``They demolished them the same day. Then in the morning, they told him we're going to demolish your home later today, so evacuate everything.''

About 130 Palestinian refugees from Bureij have the same story to tell one week after the mob-killing of an Israeli soldier in the camp.

The destruction of houses and shops in Bureij - over 30 buildings in all - is one of the largest mass demolitions carried out by the Israeli Army since the start of the Palestinian intifadah (uprising). The Army says the move was needed to improve security. Critics call it collective punishment.

``The IDF [Israel Defense Forces], for security reasons, in order to prevent attacks on its soldiers at the entrance to the camp, has widened the road, and that has required the removal of several buildings,'' says Moshe Fogel, an Army spokesman.

``It's not intended as a punishment,'' he says, adding that the murder of reservist Amnon Pomerantz had merely underlined the need to take immediate security precautions along the road.

Dan Meridor, the justice minister, made it plain, however, that he viewed the demolitions as punitive. ``We had an awful cruel lynch, perpetrated against a soldier in our Army,'' he told Israel Radio. ``There should have been a response: sharp, immediate, and teaching.''

``There is no contradiction between serving the objectives of defense and security on the one hand and keeping in the lines of the law on the other,'' he said.

Civil rights activists obtained a court restraining order on Monday night, which prevented the Army from completing its work. The order was overturned the following day, however, when the Army appealed to the Supreme Court.

Maj. Gen. Matan Vilnai, the head of the Army's Southern Command, argued that there was an ``urgent and immediate military need'' for the demolitions.

Human rights activists, however, accused the Army of punishing the whole camp.

``We do not approve of house demolitions,'' says Yuval Ginbar, data coordinator for B'tselem, an Israeli human rights group. ``Punishing people who are not accused of anything is collective punishment.''

When Israelis stoned to death an Arab driver in Jerusalem last month, Mr. Ginbar says, no one demanded that Jewish neighborhoods be ``erased,'' or the whole population blamed.

Mr. Fogel says the residents of Bureij - which remains under curfew - are collectively guilty.

``It's not correct to say that the general population of Bureij was not involved, because we're talking about a lynch murder in which hundreds of people were involved.''

Giorgio Giacomelli, commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, says there was an element of ``disproportion'' in the Army's action.

``It would be very surprising if all the people living along this street were involved,'' he said, a day after touring Bureij.

Mr. Giacomelli discussed his reservations with Moshe Arens, the Israeli defense minister, in a meeting Wednesday.

``What I did was to express my perception that a more proportionate action might have been more in line with a policy that recently seemed to have made the situation a little less mercurial,'' he said, referring to the Israeli Army's recent policy of avoiding confrontations.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Army could only complete its work if it stuck to a promise to compensate the owners and provide alternative accommodation.

For Ms. Alul, this isn't good enough. ``I don't believe the Israelis will give us anything. But even if they do, it can't compensate us for what we've already lost. All the money the family made went into that house.''

The Army sees demolitions as one of the most effective forms of punishment, with a strong deterrent factor. However, the argument that house demolition helps to reduce the level of violence has been questioned.

``Under the conditions of the uprising, it was transformed into a stimulus to further escalation of resistance to Israeli rule,'' writes Aryeh Shalev, in the Middle East Military Balance 1988-89, published by Tel Aviv's Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies.

Giacomelli said he was concerned that the Army's action might rekindle violence after a period of relative calm in the Israeli-occupied territories.

With Bureij still under curfew, it is perhaps still too early to say what the impact will be. But Alul seems to have no doubt.

``The intifadah will continue, and become stronger. The Israelis are oppressing us, how can we make peace with them?''

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