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Rafah residents 'living in hell'
Updated: 2004-05-19 13:13

Israeli tanks, bulldozers and helicopter gunships launched an offensive in southern Gaza Tuesday in what one Israeli commander called an operation aimed at the "gateway of terrorism."

The incursion left 20 Palestinians dead in Rafah and 35 wounded -- eight of them seriously, according to Palestinian security and hospital sources.

Angry Palestinian women demonstrate May 18, 2004 at UN office in Gaza City to support Rafah residents. [AP]
Three of the dead were militant members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, they said, and the rest were civilians, including a 10-year-old boy and his 11-year-old sister.

An Israel Defense Forces senior officer told Israel Radio that 20 militants were killed. No Israeli soldiers were killed in the operation, the officer said.

IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon said nine of those killed were known wanted militants.

Israeli troops were in control of the densely populated Tel Sultan neighborhood of Rafah, the senior IDF officer said.

Lionel Brisson, director of operation for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, said his staff in Rafah described the situation as "very bad, very tense."

"Nobody can approach this area. The Palestinians in Rafah are living in hell," he said.

"The Israeli forces are occupying an UNRWA school with tanks," Brisson said. "The people are locked in their homes, hiding from the heavy fighting taking place between the Israeli forces and armed militants."

Zalman Shoval, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told CNN Radio that Palestinians should do more to stop the smuggling of arms into Gaza.

"One problem [Israeli soldiers] run into, which is a tragedy, is that the entrance and the exits to the tunnels are under houses," Shoval said. "So when the army blows up the tunnel, some houses are also being toppled as a result.

"But frankly, if they want [Israel] to stop blowing up ... houses they have to stop smuggling arms," he said. "This is a purely military defensive measure."

Brisson said about 15,000 people were under curfew in Tel Sultan. His people there described on-and-off fighting.

Twenty Israeli tanks were in the main street and Israeli army snipers were in positions atop high buildings firing at people in the streets, he said. Brisson said helicopter gunships flying over the quarter had fired rockets and there was heavy machine-gun fire from time to time.

No ambulances were being allowed inside the quarter, he said.

The offensive began with two Apache helicopter gunships firing on separate buildings overnight, and about 100 tanks and bulldozers rolled into the area. Most of the fighting was concentrated in the Tel Sultan neighborhood, where Israeli troops took positions on rooftops while others searched for militants on foot.

Rafah is located along the Gaza-Egypt border. Israel claims that weapons shipped from Iran to northern Africa are smuggled into Gaza through a maze of tunnels.

Calling Rafah the "gateway of terrorism," Ya'alon was quoted in the Haaretz daily as saying, "In order to prevent such weapons being brought in, Israel has been forced to take action."

At least nine of the tunnels have been discovered in recent months. Israeli forces typically destroy the homes where the tunnels lead; at other times, when the tunnels are blown up, the houses above them collapse.

Ya'alon said Israel will destroy homes only when it has to.

"Our hobby is not to demolish homes. In one case we demolished a house where explosive devices were placed, while two other houses were razed after Palestinian fire was directed from them," he said.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz vowed the offensive, dubbed Operation Rainbow, would continue for as long as possible, according to the Haaretz daily.

The Palestinian Authority accused Israel of trying to "depopulate" Rafah and called for international aid in stopping the Israeli military operation.

In a dispatch carried by the Palestinian news agency WAFA, the Palestinian leadership said, "Israel's goal is to destroy Rafah and depopulate it."

The Palestinian leadership "called on the U.N. Security Council, [Mideast] Quartet and the United States to immediately intervene and stop the ongoing massacre."

In a separate dispatch, the Palestinian Ministry of Health accused Israeli troops of blocking emergency crews from reaching the injured or removing the bodies of the dead.

President Bush also commented on the ongoing violence Tuesday.

"The unfolding violence in the Gaza Strip is troubling and underscores the need for all parties to seize every opportunity for peace," Bush told members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. 

Group calls demolitions war crimes

Despite international condemnation, Israel has destroyed numerous buildings in Rafah over the past week as Israeli-Palestinian fighting intensified.

The Israeli Supreme Court lifted a temporary injunction Sunday, allowing the Israeli military to continue demolishing Palestinian homes in the Rafah refugee camp.

On Tuesday, Amnesty International issued a report that said the demolition and destruction in Gaza and the West Bank are "grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention and are war crimes."

"In the vast majority of cases, it's wanton destruction," said Donatella Rovera, from the Middle East program of the London-based human rights group and a co-author of the report, according to The Associated Press.

Elsewhere, there was fighting Tuesday on the West Bank.

Overnight, IDF forces operating in the city of Nablus identified a suspected member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade on a roof handling an explosive device. The troops opened fire at him.

Israeli forces were operating in the village of Anza, south of Jenin, to arrest a number of wanted Palestinians. One of those they came to arrest was armed and the forces opened fire and killed him, according to Israeli military sources. Another militant who was with him tried to escape in a car and crashed. He was arrested by the Israeli force and taken for medical treatment.

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