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Israel to expel 15 Palestinians from W.Bank to Gaza
( 2003-10-15 09:12) (Agencies)

The Israeli military on Tuesday ordered the expulsion without charge or trial of 15 Palestinian prisoners from the West Bank to the fenced-in Gaza Strip, a move condemned by international human rights activists.

The decision was announced as Israeli tanks raided a Gaza Palestinian refugee camp for the second time in less than a week. Hospital officials said 20 people were wounded.

"This is a flagrant obstruction of any effort to restore calm," newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, referring to the Israeli expulsion order.

The developments ratcheted up tensions while prominent Israeli and Palestinian politicians pushed an unofficial peace plan they called a blueprint for resuming stalled negotiations.

The army said the 15 prisoners covered by the expulsion order were militants who had been held without trial or charge as suspected accomplices in attacks on Israelis since the start of a Palestinian uprising for independence in September 2000.

The army said the prisoners had been transferred to a lockup near Gaza ahead of being released into Palestinian-ruled territory and would be given 48 hours to appeal.

Colonel Daniel Reisner, head of the army's international law department, said legal proceedings would likely delay implementation of the order for several weeks.

The army said the men, mostly members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, were being released because they could not be put on trial without revealing sensitive intelligence.

It said their expulsion was intended to keep them from rejoining the "circle of terror" in the West Bank.

The vast majority of the more than 100 suicide bombings since the start of the uprising have been carried out by militants based in the West Bank, where access to the Jewish state is much easier than from the Gaza Strip.


Last year, Israel expelled two relatives of a West Bank suicide bomber to Gaza, sparking an international outcry.

Israel forced 39 West Bank militants to go to Gaza or abroad in May 2002 in exchange for lifting a siege of Bethlehem's Nativity church where they had taken shelter.

The army described Tuesday's incursion into the Rafah camp, as a renewed search for tunnels used to smuggle weapons across the border from Egypt.

The incursion followed a three-day raid that wound down on Sunday, leaving eight Palestinians dead and more than 1,000 homeless. U.N. officials said 114 homes were flattened during the earlier raid, the deepest into the camp in six months.

Witnesses said six more homes were destroyed on Tuesday, and gunmen exchanged fire with Israeli forces entering the camp.

At his West Bank headquarters, Arafat told reporters that Israel was continuing "its crimes against the Gaza Strip."

But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher in Washington, asked to comment on Israeli operations at Rafah camp, said: "We understand Israel's need to defend itself."

Colonel Pinhas Zuarez, a senior Israeli commander in the Gaza Strip, told Reuters that U.N. estimates of damage in the Rafah camp were "very exaggerated."

"We estimate 30-40 homes (were destroyed) and they are mostly those from which shooting was directed at our soldiers and a few which concealed tunnels," he said.

Zuarez said that tunnels up to 500 meters (yards) long, "reached close to the center of the camp."

The army "will remain as long as it takes" to locate and destroy 15 tunnels which it believed were there, he said. The army said it has so far destroyed three tunnels.

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