Israeli troops pull back from Rafah

Major military incursion in southern Gaza Strip uncovers no new tunnels

May 22, 2004|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RAFAH REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip - Leaving behind a swath of destruction, Israeli troops pulled back yesterday from most neighborhoods in and around this crowded Palestinian camp, which was the scene of Israel's biggest military incursion in the Gaza Strip during nearly 44 months of conflict.

Israel said that its operations in southern Gaza were not over but that the army would significantly reduce its presence in the crowded camp and focus on intelligence-gathering. Fighting in and around Rafah this week killed at least 40 Palestinians in three days, though no new deaths were reported yesterday.

In the camp's Brazil neighborhood, the scene of running battles a day earlier between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen, residents awoke to a scene of devastation.

Along one corner of the neighborhood of concrete-block buildings, at least 20 homes appeared to have been plowed over or sheared in half by Israeli tanks and bulldozers. On one street, the asphalt had been shredded.

The number of demolished buildings was more than double the figure of eight given by Israeli military officials, who said the only structures that were being razed were those used as havens for Palestinian gunmen.

Israel said its offensive in and around Rafah was aimed at rooting out armed militants and looking for tunnels used to smuggle weapons and explosives across the border from Egypt. Israeli officials say their troops have uncovered about 90 such tunnels during the past 3 1/2 years. However, no new tunnels were found during this week's operations, army spokeswoman Maj. Sharon Feingold said.

A curfew remained in parts of the camp yesterday, and some neighborhoods had no power or water service. Palestinian hospitals complained anew that they were unable to send ambulances into the area.

Some Israeli politicians questioned whether this week's incursion had brought tangible security benefits or was merely a show of force after Israel had suffered the loss of 13 soldiers in Gaza the previous week.

"I am not sure entering Rafah was justified," leftist lawmaker Zehava Galon of the Meretz Party told Israel Radio. "I think it was a chronicle of an incursion foretold, the timing of which was determined by the desire to vent feelings of vengeance for the terrible deaths of soldiers. I never understood what was there for us, in this quagmire."

For some residents, the destruction was all too familiar. Several said they had watched Israeli forces raze their previous homes elsewhere in Rafah during past operations.

Teacher Mohammed Omar, 40, stood next to the ruins of his home, which he said he rented after the Israelis demolished his family home during an incursion in October in another area. Again, he was left without a roof overhead. "I felt more safe here," he said, sounding sardonic.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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