Even as it continues erecting a controversial security barrier in the West Bank, the Israeli army is pushing a plan to carve a trench along Gaza's border with Egypt to stop weapons smuggling through cross-border tunnels.
Digging the 2.5 mile-long trench promises to hit the Palestinian population hard. Israeli officials have given various estimates of the number of Palestinian homes that would be demolished for the project, ranging from a few dozen to as many as 3,000.
House demolitions are not new to Rafah, where, according to UN statistics, 1,728 buildings have been destroyed by the Israeli army and about 17,000 people have lost their homes since the start of fighting in September 2000.
Israel says its troops come under more Palestinian attacks in the Rafah border area than anywhere else. And the army says it demolishes only buildings from which troops are attacked or which cover weapon-smuggling tunnels. Human rights groups, however, say the demolitions reflect a systematic effort to create and expand a buffer zone along the border.
Plans to dig in along Gaza's border are being discussed even as Israel prepares for its scheduled withdrawal, beginning in June, from settlements in the Gaza Strip. The proposal is raising questions about the scope of that pullback.
Anis Mansour's house barely escaped the last Israeli demolition operation in Rafah Refugee Camp in October.
From his second-story window, he sees heaps of rubble and twisted metal, neighboring houses that didn't survive.
"I took a white flag and I yelled to the soldiers that there are many families here who want to gather their belongings," recalls Mr. Mansour, a young man with dark eyes and black stubble. "They gave us two hours to do so," he says.
The concrete house built by his father is threatened anew by Israel's trench plan.
Israel says the trench is not its first choice for foiling weapons smuggling. It would prefer, says Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, that Egypt make a determined effort to thwart the smuggling. But, he adds, this remains uncertain. "If there is no one to take control and the Egyptians do not do this, we will stay ... until we find another solution," he says. "Our goal is to be completely out of Gaza, but we can't leave that opening behind us."
Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib suggests the plan is ill-conceived. "It is another indication of Israel's intention to undermine Abbas politically and internally," he says. "Increasing the suffering of Palestinians doesn't enhance Israeli security."
But Avraham Rotem, a major-general in the Israeli army reserves and an analyst at the Besa Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv, says that if the Egyptians do not intervene to stop smuggling, the trench would be needed to prevent long-range missiles and rockets from reaching the Gaza Strip, where they could be used against Israeli towns.
He adds that the threat of a cave-in from a water-filled trench would deter tunnelers. Troop presence along the canal would not be necessary, he says, since it could be watched by reconnaissance drones, and helicopter gunships could be called in.
The construction, he adds, will require the creation of a "security zone" to protect builders.
The army says the trench would entail the demolition of either "hundreds" or "a few dozen" structures, if plans are approved by the cabinet.
However, security officials told the Associated Press and Reuters that between 200 and 3,000 homes would be destroyed, depending on the trench's width.
"Taking down several hundred houses is reasonable for building such a canal," Mr. Rotem says. "Three thousand is not."
The army says that Palestinians who lose their homes will be "fairly reimbursed." But Khatib says that misses the point. "It is not a financial matter," he says. "It has political connotations and consequences and cannot be solved by money." Menachem Mazuz, the legal adviser to the Israeli government, has been asked to determine if the plan is legal.
Paul McCann, of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, says there "is already a huge humanitarian problem in Rafah. "
"Families losing all their possessions is no small matter," he adds. "We believe that already too many people have lost their homes and that there has been a disproportionate response to the security threat," he says.