JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would seek Cabinet approval next week for a gradual withdrawal from Gaza, while an Egyptian envoy told Yasser Arafat on Monday not to sabotage the plan.
Sharon, who not assured of a majority in the Cabinet, met Monday with hawkish ministers from his Likud Party to persuade them to back him.
Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman met with Arafat in the West Bank, carrying a message that Arafat should not oppose Sharon’s plan, Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said.
An aide to Arafat said the Palestinians asked for Egyptian help in rebuilding their security services, while Arafat told Suleiman that the Palestinians were prepared to take control of Gaza once the Israelis left.
Suleiman later discussed security arrangements after a withdrawal with Sharon, aides said.
In the Rafah refugee camp, the target of a weeklong Israeli offensive, troops left the Tel Sultan neighborhood Monday. The army said all of its forces had simply been redeployed and were not withdrawing.
Massive funeral procession amid destruction
An estimated 35,000 people, meanwhile, joined an emotional funeral procession in Tel Sultan for 16 Palestinians killed in the Israeli offensive.
Residents had been unable to reach the bodies for nearly a week, touching a raw nerve because Islam requires immediate burial of the dead. They retrieved the bodies Monday from a vegetable refrigerator that had served as a makeshift morgue.
Gunmen fired automatic weapons into the air as the bodies, covered in Islamic flags, were taken to a stadium. They were later buried together at a cemetery.
Dozens of homes were demolished or damaged in the neighborhood, which is home to 25,000 Palestinians, and bulldozers flattened dozens of acres of greenhouses and farmland.
Suleiman Taha, 45, a farmer growing carnations and vegetables, said he lost an investment of $55,000. “It’s like a desert now,” he said of his property.
The Israeli military is looking for arms-smuggling tunnels in Rafah, on the border with Egypt. So far, two tunnels have been found, the army said. The army had no comment on why the greenhouses and farmland were flattened.
Despite the withdrawal from Tel Sultan, there was no sign that the Israeli offensive was over.
In the West Bank, troops briefly entered Nablus, killing a 14-year-old Palestinian boy while dispersing stone throwers.
Nazi analogy causes uproar
Causing an uproar, Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said Sunday that he was reminded of the suffering of his family under Nazi rule when he saw TV images of an Israeli offensive in Rafah.
Lapid, a Holocaust survivor, insisted that he was not likening army actions to Nazi policies. But he said the picture of an elderly woman searching for medication in the rubble of a home razed by Israel in Rafah reminded him of his grandmother.
Infuriated Cabinet colleagues said that even if unspoken, the analogy was clear, and they demanded that Lapid retract his comments.
Lapid’s remarks added fire to a debate in Israel over its offensive in the camp. Some critics said the campaign made little sense from a military point of view, while others questioned why Sharon approved it even though he was pushing for a withdrawal from Gaza.
Separately, three members of the militant group Hamas were killed Sunday while handling explosives in Nablus, Palestinian security sources told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The men had pulled their car up alongside an abandoned vehicle used to store their explosives, and the storage vehicle blew up while one of the militants was handling materials inside, the sources said, adding that it was unclear whether the explosion had been an accident or an operation carried out by Israel.
Lapid, a native of what is now Yugoslavia, spent part of the war in the Budapest ghetto and lost many relatives in the Holocaust, including a grandmother and his father. He immigrated to Israel in 1948 when he was 17.
Many Israelis have relatives who perished in the Nazi genocide, and using the issue in political debate, however heated, is considered taboo. Any comparisons between the Holocaust and other acts are seen as cheapening the memory of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis.
Israel may demolish 2,000 more homes
In the radio interview, Lapid also revealed that the army was considering demolishing about 2,000 homes in Rafah to expand a patrol road between the camp and the border with Egypt. Military officials, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity, confirmed for the first time that they were exploring plans involving the demolition of 700 to 2,000 homes.
“We look like monsters in the eyes of the world,” Lapid told Israel Radio. “This makes me sick.”
Israeli military officials want to widen the patrol road to make it more difficult for weapons smugglers to dig tunnels. The plan has been criticized by the United Nations, the European Union and the United States.
Israeli officials said Attorney General Meni Mazuz believed the road-widening plan would not hold up in local and international courts. They said he told the army to come up with alternatives that would cause less destruction.
In a meeting with Mazuz, the military chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz proposed offering compensation to Palestinians who lost their homes, officials said. No decision was made.
Forty-one Palestinians have been killed since “Operation Rainbow” began Tuesday. Israel says its offensive has resulted in the arrest of dozens of militants and the killing of a local Hamas leader. The army also said it had discovered an arms-smuggling tunnel.
The violence has put new pressure on Sharon, who wants to withdraw from Gaza.
Sharon is exploring the possibility of bringing the moderate Labor Party into his government as he tries to push forward with the withdrawal plan, which faces considerable opposition in his Cabinet, officials said Sunday.
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