Israel threatens to demolish hundreds of homes in Gaza

High court says army can act to protect troops

May 17, 2004|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Shrugging off international criticism and pleas from human-rights groups, Israel threatened yesterday to press ahead with the demolition of hundreds of Palestinian homes in the southern Gaza Strip.

The warnings by top Israeli military officials came as Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the army could destroy Palestinian buildings near an Israeli patrol road that runs along the Gaza-Egyptian frontier, if commanders deem the demolitions necessary for security reasons.

The United Nations agency that oversees Palestinian refugee camps says the destruction of nearly 100 homes along the "Philadelphi" route in the past two weeks has left more than 1,000 Palestinians homeless.

Residents of the crowded Rafah refugee camp, which abuts the frontier, have told of having to flee with no time to grab their valuables, when giant Israeli armored bulldozers tore down their homes during the past week of heavy fighting.

The Gaza-Egypt frontier has long been the scene of intense clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen, with civilians caught in the middle. Israel stages daily operations to destroy weapons-smuggling tunnels that run under the border, and its troops come under attack from Palestinian militants who fire antitank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades.

More than 30 Palestinians and 13 Israeli troops were killed in Gaza last week. In addition, the Israeli army said three armed Palestinians were killed late yesterday when they approached the security fence surrounding the seaside territory, apparently trying to slip out.

Some of the worst clashes were in Rafah. On Wednesday, Palestinian militants destroyed an Israeli armored personnel carrier on the Philadelphi route, killing all five soldiers aboard, and two more soldiers died Friday during an operation to recover their colleagues' remains.

Israel insists that razing buildings is the only way to deprive Palestinian assailants of cover for launching attacks.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have criticized the practice. The London-based Amnesty International is poised to release a scathing report this week detailing hardships caused by the demolitions.

Yesterday, Israel's top military men - Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and the army chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon - reasserted Israel's right to protect its troops.

Israeli news reports said Yaalon told the weekly Cabinet meeting that hundreds of Palestinian homes near the frontier have been marked for destruction if attacks on Israeli troops continue. Mofaz was quoted as promising a "different reality" in Rafah - a remark generally interpreted as referring to a stepped-up campaign of home demolitions as well as more Israeli strikes against Palestinian militant leaders.

Over the weekend, Israel attempted to assassinate two top officials of the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad with missile strikes in Gaza, and also staged air raids on the offices of a Hamas-affiliated newspaper and a branch office of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction.

The high court ruling on demolitions came in response to a petition by Palestinian families attempting to block the destruction of 13 homes. The three-judge panel appeared to give military authorities broad discretion in determining whether a given Palestinian structure poses a risk to troops.

Powell, speaking at a news conference in Jordan, acknowledged Israel's right to self-defense, but suggested that demolitions only created a climate conducive to more violence.

Powell also was critical of comments made earlier by Arafat, who had called on Palestinians to "terrorize" their enemies.

During his Jordan visit, Powell met with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who then moved on to Cairo for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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