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The human rights group Amnesty International charged Tuesday that Israel is guilty of war crimes and grave breaches of the Geneva Convention in its destruction of large numbers of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the course of the Palestinian uprising.

The release of the report coincided with the IDF operation in the Rafah refugee camp on the Israel-Egypt border, where Israel was poised to knock down more houses to widen the Philadelphi buffer zone in the army's battle against weapons-smuggling tunnels.

Responding to the report, the Foreign Ministry said Palestinian militants use houses in civilian neighborhoods to attack Israeli forces, and that makes the structures "legitimate military targets" under international law.

Also, the statement said, houses are used to cover entrances to weapons-smuggling tunnels. "The demolition of these structures is often the only way to combat this threat," the statement said, while blaming the Palestinian Authority for not taking action against the militants.

The Amnesty report said that Israel has demolished more than 3,000 homes during the current three-year conflict with the Palestinians, most of them in the Gaza Strip.

The report also found that 10 percent of Gaza's agricultural land has been destroyed and more than 226,000 trees uprooted there in 2002 and 2003.

The release said the demolition and destruction are "grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention and are war crimes," calling on Israel to halt the practices immediately. Amnesty also said the house demolitions are linked to Israeli intentions to take over West Bank and Gaza land.

The Amnesty report was released a few hours after an annual U.S. State Department report released Monday in Washington leveled criticism at Israel's security forces, calling their record in the West Bank and Gaza Strip poor and noting that the interactions between troops and international activists have deteriorated in the past year.

The main points in the American report are similar to those made last year. The State Department accuses Israel of excessive use of force, leading to "numerous deaths."

The U.S. report also criticized the Palestinian Authority, accusing it of "numerous, serious abuses." According to the report, Palestinian terrorists were responsible for the deaths of 378 Israelis in the territories during the past year.

Israel was also accused of employing strict closures and arbitrary arrests of Palestinians in the territories, of hindering Palestinian medical personnel and of detaining pedestrians and drivers at checkpoints located throughout the territories.

"In the vast majority of cases, it's wanton destruction," said Donatella Rovera, from the Middle East program of the London-based Amnesty International and a co-author of the rights group's report. "It's unnecessary, disproportionate, unjustified, and deliberate."

Responding to the Amnesty dossier, the Foreign Ministry said the army only demolished Palestinian buildings used by militants to fire on troops or hide weapons smuggling tunnels. It blamed militants for using civilian homes as cover for their attacks.

"When terrorists fire from within civilian structures or activate roadside charges from trees and fields, military necessity dictates the demolition of these locations," the Foreign Ministry said.

"Under international law, these structures are considered legitimate military targets. Therefore, in the midst of combat, when dictated by operational necessity, Israeli security forces may lawfully destroy structures used by terrorists," it said.

Amnesty countered that the destruction of homes, land and other property in the Palestinian territories is disproportionate to Israel's security needs.

Along with calling on Israel to stop demolitions, the 65-page Amnesty report also said Palestinian authorities should take "all possible measures" to stop attacks against Israelis and to keep militants from initiating armed confrontations from civilian areas.

Amnesty also accused Israel of collective punishment, demolishing homes and property of Palestinians who are not involved, even according to Israel, in attacks against Israel.

"This is the case with the majority of land and home destruction," said Rovera.

Israel's practice of blowing up the homes of the families of suicide bombers is one form of punishment criticized in by Amnesty in its report. It said that since September 2000, when the current conflict erupted, there have been at least 600 such cases.

Amnesty also called on Caterpillar Inc., the American heavy equipment company that provides the UDF with the giant bulldozers that carry out many of the demolitions, "to guarantee that its bulldozers are not used to commit human rights violations, including the destruction of homes, land, and other properties."

Caterpillar's Chairman and CEO Jim Owens recently wrote a letter to the parents of Rachel Corrie, the American peace activist killed in Gaza when a bulldozer ran over her, saying that his company does not have "the practical ability - or the legal right - to determine how our products are used after they are sold."

The Amnesty report said most victims of demolitions are already among the poorest in Palestinian society, making it difficult for them to recover.

Most rely on relatives to house them, resulting in overcrowded and tense living quarters, an environment Rovera says "has an enormous effect on internal family relations and the natural development of children."

Rovera said Amnesty released the report to shed light on the long term social and economic effects of the mass demolitions on the Palestinian people.

"We want people to look beyond the immediate effects of the demolitions... to how they will continue to affect the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians for many years to come," she said.

The State Department said 573 Palestinians and one foreign national were killed by Israeli security forces in the past year.

The State Department report deals only with the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, where the human rights situation is particularly poor, and not on the situation within the Green Line.

A separate report deals with the internal situation in nations around the world.