Israel hits Gaza, isolates Rafah for demolitions
Israel carried out air strikes Palestinian faction targets in Gaza City Monday and sealed off Rafah refugee camp after saying it would raze hundreds of buildings to widen a border strip prone to militant attacks.
Shaken by ambushes that killed 13 soldiers in Gaza last week, the worst blow to Israeli forces since 2002, the army was preparing not only to flatten homes it believed were gun nests but possibly digging a moat to help block arms smugglers.
U.N. relief officials said more than 1,000 Rafah refugees were already in the street after the army bulldozed about 80 homes in initial demolitions last week, temporarily halted by a Supreme Court injunction before it was lifted on Sunday.
The ruling panicked hundreds of Palestinians to flee homes near the "Philadelphi" buffer strip along Gaza's southern border with Egypt. Early Monday Israeli tanks and troop carriers moved in to cut off access routes to Rafah, witnesses said.
Israeli helicopters fired missiles at an office of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement -- which includes a militant group involved in last week's ambushes -- and another faction in Gaza City in the north of the territory.
Medics said the Fatah building and offices of the Democratic Front were empty and there were no casualties in the missile strikes, the latest in a series since last week's ambushes.
Militants killed six soldiers with a bomb laid in the path of their troop carrier in Gaza City on May 10. They blew up five more soldiers the same way in the Rafah corridor the next day. Another two soldiers were killed by sniper fire on Friday.
At least 29 Gaza Palestinians, militants and civilians, were killed in fighting sparked by Israeli army raids last week.
Early Monday, Israeli troops shot and killed two Fatah militants trying to breach Gaza's border fence with Israel.
PLAN TO DAMPEN RAFAH TINDERBOX
Israeli officials said the goal in Rafah was to widen the strip to put patrols out of range of militants firing from the cover of houses and thwart the digging of tunnels underneath to spirit in arms from the Egyptian side.
In addition to leveling rows of buildings abutting the zone, now some 200 yards wide, Israeli officials were weighing a proposal to carve a deep moat through the area and flood it to block arms smugglers, a political source said.
Israel's army chief, General Moshe Yaalon, said "hundreds of houses" believed to be concealing tunnels or to have been used as cover by Palestinian gunmen were set for destruction.
His threat meant thousands more Palestinians in the sprawling, densely packed cinderblock camp of 80,000 people faced homelessness. Residents vacated at least 200 homes facing the border corridor after the court injunction was lifted.
"I don't know what to take. I will start with clothes or the refrigerator or the television," said Abed al-Majid Abu Shamala, 52, preparing to flee a four-storey dwelling.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Jordan that Washington opposed "wholesale bulldozing of houses" in Rafah.
But Powell sought to persuade Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie to "seize the opportunity" and accept Sharon's plan to evacuate Jewish settlers from Gaza, which he has vowed to pursue despite its rejection by rightists in his own party.
Qurie accused the Israeli court of permitting "ethnic cleansing...and collective punishment of innocent civilians."
U.N. officials said Israel had displaced more than 12,000 Rafah residents by demolitions, incursions, air strikes and other fighting since the 2000 start of a Palestinian revolt in Gaza and the West Bank, land Israel captured in a 1967 war.