At first it seemed that the roughly 600 Palestinian refugees left homeless in the cold and rain by Israeli bulldozers were victims of revenge.
But it is now becoming apparent that Palestinians like Jihad Ghassas, a young carpenter who lost his home, are victims of Israeli maps, obstacles to perceived security imperatives in an area where, according to Israeli commanders, troops are endangered and arms are smuggled.
Mr. Ghassas stood Friday in the only room still intact in his house, now on the edge of the most recently expanded no man's land in the Middle East. It stretches over a hundred yards deep into this refugee camp along Gaza's border with Egypt, which has remained under Israeli control under interim peace agreements. Israeli weapons fire, tanks, and bulldozers have steadily leveled all the houses that were in the no man's land, culminating in Thursday's mass destruction, which took down 58 buildings, according to UN statistics, the largest single demolition during 15 months of fighting.
Some 70 UN-supplied tents have sprouted on nearby streets. The same process has been under way elsewhere in the Gaza Strip and West Bank in areas close to Jewish settlements and army positions, according to international aid workers.
"The idea is to depopulate areas they see as zones they would like to control," says Ann Kristin Brunborg, field director for the United Nations Association International Service. Ms. Brunborg, author of a study last year for the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group on army shooting practices, says Israel has deliberately displaced tens of thousands of Palestinians through "systematic" gunfire at their neighborhoods and destruction of their houses.
The army denies this. Spokesman Olivier Rafowicz said forces shoot only in order to protect Israeli citizens and soldiers, and that the army only destroys firing positions.
Carmela Menashe, the military affairs correspondent for Israel Radio, says the army does create buffer zones. "They say otherwise, but in Rafah there is no doubt about the intention to create an empty area," she says.
Yesterday, Israeli security forces also destroyed several houses in the Arab neighborhood of Al Isawiya in annexed east Jerusalem. A police spokesman said an Israeli court had issued destruction orders for 17 houses that were "built illegally," the wires reported.
On Sunday, however, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Israel had decided to stop the demolition of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
But Mr. Sharon reaffirmed the demolition policy yesterday in remarks quoted on Israel Radio. "We act in accordance with our security requirements, and that is the only thing that influences our decisions," he said.
For Ghassas' family, the entry of tanks and bulldozers was a fresh trauma layered on to his grandparents flight to Gaza from Asdud, a coastal village that was conquered by Jewish forces in 1948 and later transformed into the Israeli city of Ashdod. More than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their homes during the Arab-Israeli war that year, many of them taking refuge in Gaza.
Ghassas says the family had no warning, only the firing from tanks, and he scrambled to carry his brothers Mohammed, 3, and Saleh, 5, out of the house and to check that no one was left behind. Their possessions were destroyed.
"My heart is black. For one or two years, the hate will build up inside the people," he said. "And then there will be an explosion of revenge."
The Israeli action, approved by Sharon, came a day after four soldiers were killed by militants from Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, in the biggest setback the army has suffered in 15 months of fighting. The Hamas fighters came from Rafah, albeit from a neighborhood far removed from the one that was demolished. The fact that the army sent into the refugee camp troops from the Bedouin unit that had been defeated added to the sense that it was a revenge operation.
But Sharon hinted broadly on Sunday that what Israel had done in Rafah was part of a bid to create a security zone free of Palestinian inhabitants along the Egyptian border. The reason this was necessary, he suggested, was to stop smuggling of weapons from Egypt to Gaza through tunnels. "No doubt the narrow corridor we have there does not allow us to stop that [smuggling]," he told reporters. "So maybe there should be a more basic and serious solution there."
Military commanders, who insist that only 21 houses were destroyed and that they were all empty, point to another reason for the operation: driving Palestinian fighters further away from the soldiers in the border area. Rafah is the hottest front for Israeli forces, and half the shooting incidents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip take place there, according to army officials.
The Palestinians fired intensively from the houses that were demolished and have activated explosive devices from them, Gen. Doron Almog, in charge of the area, told Israel's Channel 2 Television. "There is a military necessity of providing security to the soldiers there," he said.
Palestinian residents deny there were weapons smuggling tunnels around their homes.
They confirmed that Palestinian fighters used the area to shoot at Israeli troops, but say Israeli soldiers fired into the area constantly, so that this was a type of self-defense. There have been 32 Israelis killed in the Gaza Strip during the past 15 months, 20 of them soldiers, according to General Almog.
During the same period, 344 Palestinians have died at Israeli hands in Gaza, the overwhelming majority civilians, according to the Health, Development, Information, and Policy Institute in Ramallah.
Brunborg, who stayed over in Rafah, Khan Yunis, and West Bank flashpoints a year ago for her report, said Israeli shooting was very intensive on the edges of Rafah and Khan Yunis, which has stretches that front the Katif bloc of Jewish settlements that have been leveled. "It is done so systematically," Bromberg says. "They would shell every night whether the Palestinians opened fire or not. Two, three, or four Palestinian gunmen would fire 15 rounds and run away. The army would fire the whole night, hour after hour and use tanks, automatic grenade launchers, and airburst shells.
"They would retaliate when shot at, but continue systematically when there was no threat to the lives of soldiers. If Palestinians opened fire at an Israeli outpost, three positions would open up at a neighborhood kilometers away from the shooting."
"Some houses get so pockmarked they cannot stand anymore," she says. "The houses I stayed in at Khan Yunis and Rafah no longer exist."
The mass demolitions using bulldozers began in April, after Sharon's election. UN workers say the first such demolition in the part of Rafah that was targeted on Thursday took down 18 shelters, another operation in August leveled 29, and in October another 25 houses were destroyed.
Since September 2000, 1,114 houses have been destroyed totally or partially in Rafah and its environs, according to the Palestinian Authority's Housing Ministry. It says, 1,249 have met the same fate in Khan Yunis and its environs.
Khalil Matar, deputy director of the ministry, says that in addition to creating buffer zones, "this is a way of pressing on people. They work for years to build their house, and then it is destroyed. It also puts pressure on the authority."
The liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote in an editorial that the demolitions in Rafah offer a lesson in the callousness of Sharon, Mr. Ben-Eliezer, and the army Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz. "No Israeli can go along with this sort of blind cruelty," it concluded.
Effie Eitam, a reserve general turned right-wing politician, countered in the mass circulation Yediot Ahronot that some Israelis are "using human morality as a tool to limit the army from performing its required security tasks, which are the most moral of activities."