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Palestinians: IDF razing homes in Gaza refugee camp
The Israel Defense Forces launched a mass demolition of buildings Friday in the Rafah refugee camp, adjacent to the Philadelphi Route where five IDF soldiers were killed in a Palestinian attack on an armored personnel carrier two days before. Witnesses said armored bulldozers had demolished 20 houses and were threatening many more in the camp.
Panic-stricken residents grabbed whatever belongings they could carry and fled, some waving white flags at approaching Israeli forces, the witnesses said.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, told Israel Radio on Friday that the APC hit Wednesday was struck by a projectile fired from one of the houses in the camp.
"There's a process whereby the first row of houses is abandoned and used for digging tunnels for smuggling weapons and cover for shooting," he said. "We've been forced to destroy houses here in the past and apparently we'll have to destroy more houses in the future."
Left-wing lawmaker Yossi Sarid (Meretz) told Israel Radio that the mass demolition of Palestinian buildings along the route would be a war crime and warned against "razing half of the town of Rafah."
Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the plan as a "total contradiction" to what Sharon has presented as a disengagement initiative to reduce points of conflict with Palestinians after three and a half years of fighting.
"This is a catastrophe. At a time when the Israelis are speaking of disengaging from Gaza this is really re-engaging," he said. "I hope that President Bush, who says he is encouraged by disengagement, will interfere to stop the demolitions."
A representative of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA) called the IDF's plans collective punishment. The spokesman raised doubt over IDF claims they would to provide alternative housing for those people rendered homeless by the demolitions and questioned IDF claims that all the houses set to be demolished housed terrorists or arms-smuggling tunnels.
Palestinians carry out daily attacks against Israeli positions and soldiers in the area adjoining Rafah refugee camp, where the army has already demolished hundreds of homes in searches for arms smuggling tunnels.
"It's a major source of infiltration and smuggling of weapons. We've got to stop it," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
IDF denies plans to widen Philadelphi Route
Also Friday, the IDF said it had no plans to widen the Philadelphi Route, despite remarks to the contrary by political sources earlier in the day who said the plans would include the demolition of dozens, or even hunreds of Palestinan homes in the area.
The plan to expand the route was reportedly approved Thursday at a high-level meeting attended by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and other top officials.
"It's a measure that we are taking to provide better protection for armored personnel carriers and the soldiers, and to reshape that theater of war so we will enjoy an advantage and not the Palestinians," one Israeli official said about the Philadelphi corridor.
A source in Jerusalem said the IDF intends to destroy "dozens or perhaps hundreds" of homes and widen the 9-km long buffer zone in the southern Strip, once soldiers complete a search in the area for the remains of their comrades blown up two days ago.
Five Palestinians, including four armed militants, were reportedly killed overnight in the Gaza Strip.
Three of the militants were shot dead as they approached soldiers on guard along the Egyptian border. Troops later found explosive devices near the bodies, Israel Radio reported.
Another Palestinian militant was killed when a bomb he was carrying exploded in his hands just outside the Rafah Yam settlement.
Another Palestinian man was killed Friday in an IAF helicopter missile strike in the Rafah refugee camp.