Israeli justice chief decries house razing

Some interpret remarks as comparison to Nazis

May 24, 2004|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Israel's justice minister sparked a dispute yesterday when he criticized the military's demolition of Palestinian homes in the southern Gaza Strip in remarks that some leaders interpreted as drawing parallels with the actions of the Nazis.

Tommy Lapid, leader of the centrist Shinui Party that makes up a crucial segment of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ruling coalition, said during the weekly Cabinet meeting that a televised image of an elderly Palestinian woman searching for her medicine amid the rubble of her house reminded him of his grandmother during the Holocaust, according to Israeli news reports.

The comment reportedly drew angry reactions from Sharon and other ministers. Lapid said he was expressing sympathy for an elderly woman, not comparing Israel's actions with those of the Nazis.

Lapid warned that Israel risked more worldwide condemnation if it did not stop demolishing Palestinian homes around the Rafah refugee camp along the border with Egypt.

"We must be humane and Jewish and not just security-effective," he said later in an interview on Israel Radio.

Defense officials said the offensive, called Operation Rainbow, would end soon. The operation continued for a sixth day yesterday, although army officials said the action was scaled back to give Israeli soldiers a rest. Several tanks moved back into the Brazil neighborhood amid reports of gunfire.

The clashes have claimed the lives of more than 40 Palestinians, including eight protesters killed by Israeli tank fire as they marched toward the Tel Sultan neighborhood, which had been sealed off by the Israelis amid some of the heaviest combat.

There have been no Israeli casualties.

Israel has said the offensive, which began with deadly missile strikes early Tuesday, is aimed at finding militants and tunnels through which Palestinian groups smuggle arms and explosives from Egypt.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said yesterday that the offensive would likely last for a few more days, but cautioned it would continue as long as needed.

Army officials said Israel had located an explosives-laden tunnel and another opening that may have been a passage under construction.

Critics questioned the operation, especially in light of the international criticism that the offensive and the house demolitions have drawn.

Palestinian officials alleged that Israeli troops have bulldozed dozens of homes. Army officials insist soldiers have razed just a handful of houses where gunmen had taken shelter. But last week, journalists who visited one of the neighborhoods from which Israeli forces had recently withdrawn counted the ruins of at least 20 houses.

Lapid said an army proposal to widen a military-controlled patrol road along the Egyptian border could mean razing 2,000 to 3,000 Palestinian homes - a move, he said, that would invite wider global outcry.

In other developments yesterday, three men said to be senior members of Hamas died when a vehicle they were riding in exploded in the West Bank city of Nablus. The blast was believed to have been caused by explosives the men were transporting.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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