Tanks, bulldozers attack Palestinians

Israeli forces retaliate for recent mortar attacks on Jewish settlements

April 12, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KHAN YUNIS, Gaza Strip - Israel launched the biggest ground assault of its seven-month conflict with the Palestinians late Tuesday, moving tanks and bulldozers from the coast to demolish up to 31 refugee camp homes in retaliation for a weeklong barrage of mortar attacks that have terrorized Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip.

Despite the assault, which sent residents fleeing and brought Palestinian gunmen into the streets and alleys, Gaza's "mortar war" resumed early last evening, with four shells landing on Israeli settlements, prompting return fire from Israeli tanks.

But at the same time, top Israeli and Palestinian security officials held their second meeting in less than a week in a bid to reduce the bloodshed, and a dovish former Israeli Cabinet minister, Yossi Beilin, reported new signs of Palestinian flexibility after a meeting yesterday with President Yasser Arafat.

The demolition focused new attention on the Gaza Strip, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live in refugee camps standing almost cheek-by-jowl with sparsely populated but sprawling Jewish settlements protected by Israeli soldiers in heavily fortified camps.

For more than a week, Palestinians have been launching nightly mortar attacks on the settlements with what appear to be locally produced and imprecise launchers. While they have caused little destruction and few casualties, the mortars are seen by Israel as a potentially dangerous escalation.

"It is a makeshift mortar bomb, a strategic weapon for the poor," said Brig. Gen. Ya'ir Naveh, commander of Israeli forces in Gaza.

When the mortars appeared a number of weeks ago, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian security official they said had worked with the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah to develop them. But the mortar attacks continued.

The spate of attacks coincides with announced Israeli preparations to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank with hundreds of new homes, potentially adding thousands of settlers to areas viewed by most of the world as occupied Palestinian territory.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed Tuesday during a visit near Gaza to crack down on Palestinian attackers, and the demolitions marked a major step in fulfilling his promise.

Starting about 11 p.m. Tuesday, Gaza residents said, tanks began firing at the tops of residential buildings on the edge of the Khan Yunis refugee camp.

The apparent intent of the firing, they said, was to clear out residents, Palestinian police and gunmen in preparation for what came next. As helicopters whirred overhead, two tanks moved into the camp, followed by bulldozers that over four hours reduced more than 20 homes in a two-block area to rubble.

"After the tanks were stationed in place to make sure there were no gunmen, two bulldozers each started from one side to demolish" the buildings, said Gaza resident Zacki Abu Zarga, 37.

Summoned by mosque loudspeakers, male residents grabbed their guns and fired at the tanks and bulldozers. Abu Zarga was among them.

According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, 31 houses were demolished, leaving 500 people homeless. Other accounts put the number of houses destroyed at 12 to 25. Two Palestinian men were killed by gunfire and 20 others were wounded, the center said.

Israeli officials said the houses that were demolished had been abandoned by residents, then used for mortar and rifle attacks on the settlement.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer called it a "purely defensive operation," because "night after night, that's where they fire the mortars from, and they fire in all directions at settlements and get away."

But an Israeli military source said the mortar attacks came from a school further to the west.

Palestinian residents denied that the neighborhood had been used to launch mortar attacks and angrily rejected Israeli claims that the demolished homes had previously been abandoned.

Jalal Khalil al Boulos, 40, said the first two structures to fall were his: a new concrete home he has been building for a year, for which he borrowed more than $20,000, and a dwelling that housed himself, his wife and eight children.

"They have demolished my house totally, with furniture and clothes," he said.

The assault produced signs of a rift within Sharon's Cabinet, with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who was in Turkey, apparently not being told of it in advance.

The Sharon government has adopted a policy of putting pressure on communities seen as hotbeds of terror and violence while easing restrictions on the general Palestinian population. More Palestinians have been allowed to go to jobs in Israel in recent weeks, and Israel has allowed traffic to resume on the main Gaza road.

As Khan Yunis residents clustered atop the rubble and others raised tents, Arafat met in the West Bank town of Ramallah with Beilin, who served as justice minister in the government of Ehud Barak and was an early architect of the Oslo peace process.

Beilin said he had told Arafat: "When there are mortar bombs, no government can ignore that," and added that Israeli doves now doubt that Arafat is a true peace partner. But he said he emerged from the meeting with the belief that Arafat is willing to restart peace negotiations without insisting that the talks pick up where they had left off under Barak, when Israel offered concessions that Sharon opposed.

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