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IDF begins operation to isolate Rafah from rest of Strip
A massive deployment of Israel Defense Forces troops on Monday morning launched a major operation in the southern Gaza Strip, aimed at isolating the town of Rafah from the rest of Gaza and neighboring Egypt.
The operation, the first division-level operation to be conducted in Gaza, aims to destroy tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt into the Strip, as well as arrest and/or kill wanted militants.
Seven IDF tanks and armored bulldozers, backed by helicopter gunships, moved into the area between Rafah and the town of Khan Yunis, witnesses said. The IDF said the move was aimed at preventing militants moving between the two towns.
An IDF reservist colonel, Colonel Yuval Dvir, told Army Radio on Monday that it would be "idiotic" for Israel to maintain control of the Philadelphi Route after it pulls out of the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian security officials in Rafah said that IDF bulldozers piled sand embankments across the main road and a tank fired three shells at an empty Palestinian police post on the road.
The IDF is also weighing a plan to dig a deep moat, costing millions of shekels, to run the length of the Philadelphi Route, in order to further isolate the Palestinian Rafah from the neighboring Egyptian town of the same name.
Israel vowed Sunday to escalate its military activities in the Strip, with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz telling the weekly cabinet meeting that the army would work to "create a new reality" along the Gaza-Egypt border.
Last week, 13 IDF soldiers were killed in three separate attacks across Gaza, two of them in the southern Strip.
The huge number of reinforcements deployed to the Strip last week to help search for the remains of their slain comrades are still posted on the border of the Strip, and these forces will apparently be integrated into the planned offensive.
Palestinians flee, fearing destruction of homes
Dozens of Rafah residents began leaving their houses Sunday, in the wake of a High Court of Justice decision to reject a petition requesting a ban on further IDF demolitions of homes in the town and its refugee camp.
The petition, presented on behalf of 13 Rafah residents, said that the IDF planned to demolish their homes in order to widen the nearby Philadelphi Route, which demarcates the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
Senior military sources stressed late Sunday that large-scale house demolitions were not among the operation's goals, but houses would be destroyed if soldiers came under fire from them, or if they constituted a danger to troops.
The three-member High Court panel said that the IDF was entitled to carry out such demolitions along the Philadelphi route for security reasons, "according to operational needs" or if the military determined that soldiers' lives were in danger.
IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon told the cabinet Sunday that "hundreds of Palestinian houses along the Israel-Egypt border have been targeted for demolition."
Ya'alon said, however, that the targeted houses were vacant, Israel Radio reported.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on Sunday voiced American opposition to the demolitions.
According to the court ruling, the IDF will have to publish its intention to demolish houses that do not meet these conditions and give the residents the opportunity to have a court hearing against the demolitions.
The petitioners' lawyer, Yunes Tamim, voiced hope that this could limit the scope of destruction.
But a deputy IDF commander in Gaza, told reporters outside the court: "If there will continue to be a danger to soldiers, we will continue to destroy houses without giving prior warning."
Over the weekend, the IDF conducted a mass demolition of buildings in Rafah refugee camp, destroying up to 88 homes and leaving more than 1,000 people homeless, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said Saturday.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the cabinet Sunday that Israel has asked Egypt for assistance in halting weapons-smuggling by Palestinian militants across the border into Gaza. He also said he had asked the United States for help.