18/05/2004

Israeli military steps up operations in Gaza Strip

At least 13 Palestinians have been killed during an anti-terror operation by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) which saw military incursions into the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza Strip last night.

According to reports emerging from the area, Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved into the camp in an attempt to remove "terrorist infrastructure". In so doing, the IDF destroyed dozens of homes.

During the operation the IDF fired a number of missiles which led to deaths of 13 people, Palestinians sources have claimed. Reuters has reported that the death toll could stand at 15. Several of the dead are understood to have been Hamas activists.

Last night's move was the latest incident in a week of IDF operations in the area. At least IDF 13 soldiers have died since the beginning of what the army has dubbed 'Operation Rainbow'.

There is growing international concern over Israel's aggressive stance following the unveiling of Ariel Sharon's 'disengagement plan' last month. The Israelis have been urged to reconsider the policy of targeted assassinations and demolitions of Palestinian property.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that he was "deeply concerned" at the demolitions.

He added: "While I understand Israel's need to defend itself, the demolition of homes is a form of collective punishment which harms innocent people. House demolitions fuel anger among Palestinians and in the region. Such actions are contrary to Israel's commitments under the Roadmap and are simply unacceptable."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan added weight to the widespread condemnation of the clearances, and called for Israel to end "collective punishment immediately" and "refrain from further grave violations of international law".

He added: "I am really distressed that [it] continues. It really is causing a very difficult and painful situation for the people of Palestine."

According to UN relief teams, 2,197 people have lost their homes following the demolition of 191 homes throughout Gaza in the first 15 days of May, with Rafah the worst-affected area.

The UN's Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has estimated that it will cost $32 million to re-house the 18,382 refugees who have lost their homes across the Gaza Strip.

The IDF believe that the Rafah operations have applied significant pressure on militant Palestinian groups by destroying arms-making factories, safe houses and tunnels (hidden within housing) used for arms smuggling.

On Saturday, the IDF destroyed what it described as an "explosives lab" belonging to Islamic Jihad in the camp.

The lab served as a centre for planning terrorist activities as well as the production of weapons which are used by the Islamic Jihad to carry out terrorist attacks, the IDF said.

This was the third such structure targeted by the IDF on May 15. The two other buildings were a "researchers center belonging to the Islamic Jihad" and the offices of the "El-Anzar association which functions as guise for locating, recruiting and activating terrorists", according to the IDF.

(gmcg)

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