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Israel halts deadly refugee camp sweep

Israeli troops abruptly pulled out of the Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah on Monday without completing a sweep for arms-smuggling tunnels — an operation that drew worldwide condemnation.
An Israeli soldier gives instructions to armored vehicle drivers Monday as they pass the Rafiah Yam settlement in the southrn Gaza Strip after pulling out of the nearby Palestinian town of Rafah.
An Israeli soldier gives instructions to armored vehicle drivers Monday as they pass the Rafiah Yam settlement in the southrn Gaza Strip after pulling out of the nearby Palestinian town of Rafah. Oded Balilty / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israeli troops abruptly left this refugee camp without completing a sweep for arms-smuggling tunnels, prompting growing criticism in Israel on Tuesday that the military has little to show for a weeklong offensive that left 45 Palestinians dead and drew worldwide condemnation.

Estimates of the number of houses demolished in the raid varied greatly. The United Nations said 45 buildings were razed, while Palestinian officials said about 300 homes were destroyed. Israel said 56 homes were demolished or damaged.

It was difficult to obtain an independent estimate, because areas of demolition are scattered throughout the camp. Also, 45 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, including at least 17 gunmen and 12 children under 16, according to hospital doctors.

Cabinet OK for withdrawal plan seen
Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, said a one-vote majority in favor of a Gaza withdrawal is emerging in the divided Cabinet. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been struggling to secure a majority in the Cabinet, and a vote on the plan now appears likely next week. Earlier this month, his Likud Party rejected a Gaza pullout.

Sharon has insisted he would not negotiate the terms of a pullback with the Palestinian Authority.

However, Egypt on Monday emerged as a key mediator. Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman met with Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, relaying messages between the sides and saying Egypt is willing to play a major role in assuring security in Gaza and an orderly transfer of power.

Suleiman urged skeptical Palestinian leaders to go along with Sharon’s plan of “unilateral disengagement,” which would also include withdrawing from four West Bank settlements, according to Palestinian officials.

Arafat promised to prepare a Gaza security plan by June 15 to show he is capable of running the coastal strip after an Israeli pullback, the officials said.

Weeklong sweep followed two deadly bombings
Sharon’s push for a Gaza withdrawal came despite the Rafah offensive, launched a week ago, after 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza, including 11 who died in two separate bomb attacks on military vehicles.

On Tuesday, Palestinian militants detonated a bomb near an Israeli army jeep in the central Gaza Strip, the army said. No one was injured.

Rafah abuts the border with Egypt, and troops raided the camp in search of tunnels. The army has said it is crucial to destroy the tunnels to cut off the flow of weapons to militants.

Military commentators said the operation achieved little of what it set out to do at a very high price — both in Palestinian suffering and harm to Israel’s image.

The army said it found three smuggling tunnels, acknowledging several more remained hidden in Rafah. No large stockpiles of weapons were discovered. Hundreds of Palestinian gunmen slipped through the Israeli dragnet.

The army’s sudden departure, without completing the search for tunnels, “is to a great extent a failure,” commentator Amir Rappaport wrote in the Maariv daily.

Roni Daniel, military correspondent for Israel TV’s Channel Two, quoted a field commander as saying troops moved in the camp like a “bull in a china shop” and destroyed dozens of greenhouses for no reason.

Use of force seen as ineffective
Matan Vilnai, a retired general and opposition legislator, said smuggling can only be stopped in coordination with Egypt and the Palestinians.

“We must understand that not everything can be solved by force,” Vilnai told Israel Army Radio.

Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the Gaza commander, suggested troops might return to Gaza after a brief respite. Military officials said they believe there are about 10 tunnels in Rafah.

The army says it has destroyed about 90 tunnels in more than three years of fighting.

In the Brazil neighborhood of Rafah, residents surveyed the damage Tuesday, including large piles of rubble and torn-up streets. Bulldozers tried to clear streets to allow workers to restore electricity and repair water and sewage pipes.

Said Zaghoub, the mayor of the adjacent town of Rafah, said about 300 houses were demolished in the camp and 200 more were so seriously damaged they are uninhabitable.

The mayor said he did not have an estimate of the number of people made homeless, except to say 500 families lived in the 300 homes that were razed completely.

However, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which cares for refugees, said it knew only of 45 houses demolished in the past week, leaving 575 people homeless.

In more than three years of fighting, Israel has demolished 1,354 buildings in Rafah, making more than 13,000 Palestinians homeless, U.N. officials said.

Mustafa Arja, 45, said bulldozers knocked down the wall around his small garden, and he and his family lived in fear for several days that their home would be demolished, as well. Arja said that even though he was spared this time, he fears the soldiers will be back.