Israeli troops withdraw from Rafah camp neighbourhood

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 24-May-04 | Author: Ibrahim Barzak| Source: The Independent

Israeli troops withdrew today from a besieged Palestinian neighbourhood in Rafah refugee camp today, leaving behind dozens of demolished homes, acres of leveled agricultural land and residents despairing over how the destruction will be repaired.

Israeli forces said they had lifted 'the quarantine' from the Tel Sultan neighbourhood, and residents were free to leave and enter. Troops continued to operate in the Brazil area of the refugee camp.

Tel Sultan was the first focus of the Israeli sweep through the sprawling refugee camp on the Gaza-Egypt border. Residents said the tanks pulled back in the direction of a Jewish settlement after midnight. However, the six-day Israeli raid continued in other areas of the camp.

Wary residents who left their homes — many for the first time since Israel launched its offensive — confronted streets and homes bulldozed into mounds of rubble, razed farms and greenhouses and sewage running through streets decorated with downed electric and telephone cables.

Israel's operation has led to sharp international and local criticism. Israeli Cabinet Minister Yosef Lapid caused an uproar Sunday when he said images of Israel's destruction in the Rafah refugee camp reminded him of his grandmother, who suffered Nazi atrocities during World War II.

In the bright sun, the destruction looked even worse than residents had originally anticipated.

"In one simple word: This is Hiroshima 2004," said Rafah Mayor Saed Zourab in a telephone interview while touring the Tel Sultan neighborhood.

Rumors of the destruction leaked out of the neighborhood during the army's six day quarantine, but no one could enter or leave the area during the operation.

"The Israeli war machine left its ugly stamp on every tree, on every street, and they left an ugly tattoo on the head of these people. No word can describe the destruction and there is no way to repair this destruction," Zourab said.

The water and sewer systems have been destroyed, Zourab said, adding it would take a long time to repair downed telephone and electric cables. All the streets in the neighborhood have been damaged, and some residents can't leave their homes because rubble blocks the door, he said.

Every house in the neighborhood has been damaged in some way, whether by bulldozers and other heavy military vehicles maneuvering through the camp's narrow alleys, or by machine-gun fire, Zourab said. "Even the mosque has been burned," he added.

Israel's "Operation Rainbow" was launched to uncover and destroy weapons-smuggling tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border and round up militants, according to the army.

However, only one tunnel has been uncovered, while 41 Palestinians have been killed and dozens of homes destroyed.

The widespread destruction has raised questions in Israel and the world over the goals of the invasion — which was launched less than a week after 13 Israeli soldiers were killed by Palestinian militants.

Some critics said the campaign makes little sense from a military standpoint. Some said it was meant as revenge against the militants and to boost the morale of Israeli troops. Others questioned why Sharon approved it, even though he is pushing for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Sharon announced Sunday he plans to request Cabinet approval next week for his proposal to evacuate all Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

After having the contentious plan rejected by his hard-line Likud Party in a referendum earlier this month, Sharon made minor changes in the hopes of obtaining a majority in Cabinet.

Despite the revisions — including breaking the plan up into phases, each of which will be brought for separate Cabinet approval — Sharon is not guaranteed a majority, and the vote could bring down his government.

Sharon consulted ministers and defense establishment officials about the Gaza pullout proposal ahead of Sunday's weekly Cabinet meeting.

But Sharon declared, "I intend to present the stages of my plan to the Cabinet in a week and get it approved."

The army insists that in order to make the Gaza pullout a success, it must widen a patrol road along the Gaza-Egypt border to prevent arms smuggling. The army wants to expand the nine-kilometer (six-mile) road by 300 meters to make it harder for militants to dig tunnels.

Implementing the plan would require Israel to demolish between 700 to 2,000 Palestinian homes, military sources confirmed Sunday. Israel's attorney general has asked the army to come up with a less-destructive proposal, saying it would not hold up in local and international courts.

During Sunday's Cabinet meeting, Lapid called for a halt in the demolitions. He said the practice was cruel, hurting Israel's image around the world and reminded him of the suffering of his own family.

"I am talking about an old woman on all fours looking for her medicine in the rubble of her home and I thought about my grandmother," he told Israel Army Radio.

Lapid, a native of the former Yugoslavia, spent part of World War II in the Budapest ghetto and lost many relatives, including one grandmother and his father, in the Holocaust. He immigrated to Israel in 1948 when he was 17.

The army's plan to demolish hundreds of home for the purpose of expanding the border road "makes me sick," Lapid said.