Israel steps up Gaza demolitions

Supreme Court says houses can be razed as part of military operations.

Mahmoud Abu Anzeh's house is in the wrong place, as far as Israel is concerned.

Last Wednesday, Mr. Anzeh had fled with his two wives and seven children amid fire from Israeli helicopter gunships. Upon returning Saturday, he found his house pockmarked and six homes of relatives directly across the alley turned into rubble by army bulldozers.

Coming on the heels of one of the deadliest weeks for Israeli troops in two years, it marks the start of what Israeli officials say will be the largest demolition operation during 3-1/2 years of fighting. Sunday, Israel's Supreme Court cleared the way for more demolitions to take place if they are aimed at rooting out Palestinian militants.

"My family is staying in a school near the mosque," says Anzeh, a former agricultural worker in Israel who lives in a one-story concrete structure adorned with framed verses from the Koran. "I don't know what we will do. We have no money to rent another house. Certainly they will destroy the house, but crying will not help. I am crying inside."

A two-year plan

From Israel's point of view, Anzeh's house - and hundreds of others belonging to refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and their descendants - are in the way of the army's two-year plan to widen a corridor troops control along the border with Egypt to thwart weapons smuggling in underground tunnels.

Though Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to submit a revised plan to dismantle Israeli settlements in Gaza following a failed referendum earlier this month, the government has repeatedly made clear that any withdrawal will not spell the end of military involvement in the Strip. The army will continue to control the corridor in Rafah and all other land, sea, and air outlets, even if it evacuates the 7,500 Israeli settlers who live in the midst of 1.3 million Palestinians.

Meanwhile, some 120,000 Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv on Saturday to urge Mr. Sharon to implement his withdrawal plan.

After five soldiers in an armored vehicle were killed in an ambush in the corridor Wednesday, among 13 soldiers and 32 Palestinians to die in fighting last week, the army launched an operation it said was intended to retrieve their remains. As soldiers scoured the sandy soil for remains, bulldozers nearby demolished 116 homes until Friday night, according to Btselem, an Israeli human rights group. A total of seven Israeli soldiers and 15 Palestinians died in Rafah last week.

"This is a measure we are taking to provide better protection for armored personnel carriers and the soldiers, and to reshape the theater of war so we will enjoy the advantage, not the Palestinians," an official was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Btselem called for "an immediate halt to plans for further demolitions" and for compensation and alternative housing to be provided to those who lost their homes.

Senior army officers said that 40 homes were destroyed and that all of them served as either sniper positions or hideouts from which militants launched remote control bombs. Displaced residents disputed this.

More than 90 underground tunnels

The idea is to widen the Philadelphia Corridor to about 500 yards, from its current width of about 250 yards, according to Arye Eldad, a far-right coalition legislator who serves on the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. According to Btselem, approximately 1,800 Rafah homes have already been destroyed by the army during the 3-1/2 intifada, many of them in relatively smaller-scale efforts to widen the corridor and a large-scale operation last October.

During one demolition in March 2003, American activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an army bulldozer as she tried to stop it from reaching a house.

"The intention is to remove the area where there are houses to beyond the range of rocket-propelled grenades," Mr. Eldad says. He says that more than 90 weapons-smuggling tunnels have been discovered in the area during the past three years and that the widening will hamper the transfer of explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, and in the future "maybe even antiaircraft missiles" into the Strip.

The thousands of Palestinians who would be displaced could be relocated to Canada, Eldad says. "It is proper to propose [prefabricated] caravans as compensation or to help them in finding work or housing in other countries," he says.

Army officials were quoted by Israel's Y-net news agency as saying the completion of the demolition plan may take several months. They said that Palestinians who lose their homes might be offered alternative housing. Similar pledges in the past were never honored.

Israeli opposition member of the Knesset Yossi Sarid is urging the government to drop the demolition plan. "This will be perceived by the world as a war crime," he says.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Jordan Saturday, expressed concern over the plan. "We know Israel has a right of self defense, but the kind of action they are taking in Rafah with the destruction of homes we oppose," he told reporters.

Sleeping at the girls school

Some among the newly homeless of Block O are sheltering at the nearby Rafah Elementary Girls School, where they have been sleeping on mattresses on classroom floors. Others are staying with relatives. The Palestinian Authority's Rafah Governorate Sunday appealed for humanitarian aid to help with the new homeless and the expected waves to come.

"I have not changed my clothes for five days, " says Filastin Abu Tyur, a student at the girls school who is now living there. "Pupils came to the classrooms this morning, but the families told them, we are staying here, we have no where to go."

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