Israel looks to secure Gaza prior to pull out

The Israeli army launched a major offensive into the occupied territory Tuesday, killing 18.

The Israeli army launched a massive military campaign in the southern end of the Gaza Strip Tuesday, killing 18 Palestinians - seven of them armed, it says. Israel is gambling that the upshot of an aggressive foray to cut off the flow of weapons from neighboring Egypt would outweigh the international condemnation of the offensive.

In what may be the largest Israeli army operation in Gaza since the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli helicopters attacked the area of Rafah overnight with missile and machine-gun fire. It is continuing to widen and flatten a corridor that Israel says is used for smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip from neighboring Egypt.

The spiraling violence is not a routine flare-up in hostilities, but the product of an attempt to shape the future of a Gaza that many here expect will soon see an Israeli withdrawal, despite Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent failure to gain his party's support for his pull-out plan.

The major invasion comes after a week in which 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in the Gaza Strip in sophisticated ambush attacks by Palestinian militants. The Israeli public's expectation that there would be some response from the army made an opportune moment, analysts say, to implement long-standing plans to widen the Philadelphia Corridor that separates the Gaza Strip from Egypt, which controlled it until Israel occupied it in the Six Day War.

In so doing, Israel may effectively create a buffer zone that would be difficult to penetrate, making it harder for Palestinian militant groups to get new weapons and ammunition via underground tunnels. The timing for the operation is bolstered by the argument among strategic hawks here that Israel can put itself in a more secure position now and prevent heavier attacks on its soil later.

"This plan was on the shelf, but it was really on the agenda for a long time, and just now they grabbed the opportunity to do it," says Akiva Eldar, an analyst who writes for the Haaretz newspaper. "Everyone knows Sharon wants to get out of there, and we know there are tunnels there that weapons are flowing through. Even for the Israeli peace camp, the idea of a security zone like we had in Lebanon doesn't look like a radical thing."

It may, however, look that way to the rest of the world, where criticism of Israel's campaign in Gaza mounted. The raid, coming on the heels of Israel's demolition of homes in the area in recent days, has drawn condemnation and calls for restraint from the United Nations and the European Union. Arab nations have asked for a special session of the UN Security Council.

Additionally, a new report by human rights watchdog Amnesty International charged that Israel has engaged in "war crimes" in an "unjustified destruction of thousands of Palestinian and Arab Israeli homes," demolishing more than 3,000 homes since the start of the second intifada in September 2000. The The demolitions have left tens of thousands of people homeless, Amnesty says.

Israeli officials say that they are trying to minimize the number of Palestinian homes destroyed in order to clear the area, but insist they had no choice but to launch this operation. According to Israeli media reports, the weapons flowing in through the tunnels are now being used for attacks on Israeli soldiers and citizens, and also to arm a future Hamas force that may try to take over the Gaza Strip in case of an Israeli withdrawal.

Since the weekend, residents of the Rafah refugee camp - home to some 91,000 Palestinians - have fled as rumors of an offensive spread. In demolitions carried out last Thursday and Friday, 1,064 people were made homeless, according to United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The organization was preparing for the possibility that thousands more could follow.

"We're providing food, water, mattresses, and blankets to people, and we have positioned tents in a sports field on the outskirts of Rafah," says Paul McCann, a spokesman for UNRWA. More than 400 people are staying in UNRWA schools, he says, while others are taking shelter with relatives.

Many Israelis, observers says, will view the raids as classic Sharon - the father of dangerous adventurism to some, and to others, the architect of brave preemptive moves that are necessary, even if not palatable. On the eve of Tuesday's invasion, the Israeli army was told to evacuate a small Israeli settlement outpost in the northern West Bank, where young settlers wrestled with soldiers trying to remove them from the land. The image of Sharon taking on the wayward settlers was aimed at showing the public he remains serious about his disengagement plan and at tempering the predictable ire from abroad.

"The evacuation of outposts is another attempt to sell this," Mr. Eldar says. "Sharon had to weigh the balance between criticism from outside and the criticism from inside.... He needed to show that he's not totally helpless. When there is one funeral after the other, and this awful footage [of dismembered soldiers] came out of Gaza, Sharon knew it was the right time to act."

Palestinians, however, roundly disregard Israel's explanation for the campaign.

"There isn't any truth that this area is being used to smuggle weapons," says Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian minister of labor and a close adviser to Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority. "The scope of this campaign goes beyond any need to reinforce the border. I don't think the activities of Israel indicate the possibility of an evacuation of Gaza. They're not talking about withdrawal; they're talking about making rearrangements for keeping Gaza under a siege of the Israeli army."

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