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Israel army leaves Rafah after punishing raid
Updated: 2004-05-25 09:21

Israeli forces ended a six-day siege in a Gaza refugee camp that left at least 42 Palestinians dead, destroyed dozens of homes and sparked international outrage.

But as the last soldiers withdrew from the Rafah camp late on Monday, the military said it would return to destroy weapons smuggling tunnels as deemed necessary.

"I don't know if I can say 'Operation Rainbow' is over. We are taking a deep breath and this goes on," a senior military official said.

As the army loosened its grip and thousands of mourners chanted for revenge, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lobbied hardline ministers over a gradual Gaza pullout plan he intends to put to a cabinet vote next week.

Wary residents venturing out in Rafah's Tel Sultan and Brazil districts begged for water as they confronted demolished homes, flattened greenhouses and torn-up streets flowing with raw sewage after Israeli tanks rumbled out.

"It looks like an earthquake hit," resident Sami Fuja said.

The army said its forces had withdrawn after destroying three weapons smuggling tunnels in the camp, but Israeli media outlets said the operation was cut short after military officials concluded it was not meeting its objectives.

The army also lifted a blockade that had cut Rafah off from the rest of the Gaza Strip (news - web sites) for nearly a week, saying it was easing conditions for the beleaguered population.

Israel launched the Rafah operation after 13 soldiers were killed in ambushes. The army said its goal was to root out militants and shut down tunnels used to smuggle arms across the border from Egypt.

The U.N. relief agency UNRWA and other rights groups said the army had demolished some 180 homes.

Major-General Dan Harel said 56 "structures" were destroyed or badly damaged when weapons-smuggling tunnels were blown up, gunmen's positions attacked or when heavy armor was used to clear explosives planted by militants.

Giving a higher death toll then that reported by Palestinians, military officials said troops HAD killed around 40 "terrorists" during fighting and at least seven civilians.


Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie condemned the Israeli siege -- which had also drawn a rare U.S. rebuke against the Jewish state -- as "unprecedented criminal aggression."

Televised images of refugees combing the rubble sparked a world outcry and even caused a row inside Sharon's cabinet.

Justice Minister Yosef Lapid, a Holocaust survivor, touched a nerve by saying the sight of an elderly Palestinian woman searching the ruins reminded him of his grandmother who died in a Nazi death camp. He said further destruction could force his centrist party to reconsider its role in Sharon's coalition.

Sharon said on Sunday he was determined to push through a step-by-step plan to withdraw from Gaza and several of the 120 West Bank Jewish settlements despite his right-wing Likud party's rejection of the pullout in a May 2 referendum.

Violence has spiked in the Gaza Strip since Sharon introduced his unilateral "disengagement" strategy and won U.S. backing for it. Militants want to declare victory in any Israeli pullout but the army is determined to smash them before leaving.

Political sources said Sharon would present an amended plan for a four-stage evacuation of 7,500 Jewish settlers, who live in heavily guarded Gaza settlements amid 1.3 million Palestinians, at the next cabinet meeting scheduled for May 30.

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