Hundreds of Rafah homes slated for demolition
IDF troops were poised to begin a major operation in the southern Gaza Strip last night - the first time they have conducted a division-level operation in Gaza.
The Israel Defense Forces were poised to begin a major operation in the southern Gaza Strip last night - the first time they have conducted a division-level operation in Gaza.
The massive reinforcements that were summoned to the Strip last week to help search for the remains of their slain comrades are still posted on the border of the Strip, even though the searches have been called off, and these forces will apparently be integrated into the planned offensive. The goals of the operation included completely separating the town of Rafah, on the Egyptian border, from the rest of Gaza; arresting and/or killing wanted men; and destroying arms smuggling tunnels.
Senior military sources stressed that large-scale house demolitions were not among the operation's goals, but if the forces were fired on from houses in Rafah, or if certain houses constituted a danger to the troops, those houses would be destroyed.
But Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon said yesterday the Philadelphi route would be widened by demolishing houses in Rafah, a decision that follows on the heels of a High Court of Justice ruling yesterday that permits the army to demolish Palestinian homes without granting residents a right of appeal if this is dictated by "immediate operational necessity" or the need to protect soldiers' lives.
Ultimately, however, many houses in the Rafah area will need to be demolished, Ya'alon told the cabinet yesterday. While Ya'alon did not cite a specific number, cabinet ministers said their impression was that he was talking about several dozen houses located near the Philadelphi route in Rafah.
The goal of demolishing these houses would be to widen this road in order to reduce attacks on the soldiers who patrol it to prevent arms smuggling from Egypt. Widening the road would reduce the threat of antitank missiles and RPGs, such as the one that killed five soldiers in Rafah last Wednesday when it hit their armored personnel carrier.
Widening the road would also reduce the threat to the IDF outposts there, army sources said, as it would make it harder for Palestinians to tunnel under these outposts and plant bombs there - something that they have attempted several times already.
Finally, widening the road would make it harder for the Palestinians to dig arms smuggling tunnels under it. If the nearest Palestinian houses were 500 meters from the border with Egypt, the army believes that the Palestinians would have difficulty ventilating the tunnels without constructing air holes - which would make it easier for soldiers to discover the tunnels and destroy them. And since the international border cannot be moved, the only way to achieve this distance is to destroy the nearest ranks of Palestinian houses in Rafah.
Egypt, Ya'alon told the cabinet, is not cooperating with Israel to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, which makes it all the more crucial for Israel to step up its anti-smuggling campaign.
Ya'alon's report on Cairo's noncooperation outraged Energy Minister Joseph Paritzky (Shinui), who demanded that Israel ask the Americans to apply pressure on Egypt over this issue.
In response, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon revealed that Israel is currently negotiating with senior Egyptian officials over amendments to the security annex of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement. The proposed amendments would enable Egypt to bring crack troops into the border region in order to deal with the arms smuggling. Currently, Egypt is only allowed to maintain a police presence there, and this force is considered low quality.
"The fighting along the Philadelphi route is aimed at interfering with terrorism's oxygen supply," Sharon added. "We will not allow Palestinian terror to attain the capability to which it aspires - the ability to threaten the heart of the country - even after the disengagement from Gaza."
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz also told the cabinet that the IDF plans to widen the Philadelphi route significantly, thereby "creating a different reality in the Philadelphi-Rafah region ... The Palestinians are trying to obtain weapons that would `destroy the balance.' If we don't fight against the weapons that are smuggled and manufactured there, we will find them here, aimed at the citizens of Israel."
Military sources said that as part of the effort to widen the Philadelphi route, the IDF is also planning to dig a wide, deep canal that will run the length of the road, from the Mediterranean Sea to Kerem Shalom. The canal, like the house demolitions, would help both to protect the soldiers on the road from attack and to make it harder for the Palestinians to construct arms smuggling tunnels.
Construction of the canal, which will cost tens of millions of shekels, is expected to begin in earnest in a few months, but some preliminary work has already been done. It is slated to be built by civilian contractors, who will presumably have to work under heavy fire.
In the High Court hearing on the demolitions yesterday, the state told the court that it believes that almost all demolitions in the Rafah area meet that criteria, because "in 99 percent of the cases in the Rafah area ... the moment we announce our intention of razing a home, the Palestinians immediately set booby-traps there."
Officers in the IDF's Southern Command said last night that they also believe that the planned demolitions are fully covered by yesterday's ruling, because the goals of widening the road encompass both of the pretexts deemed legitimate in the court's ruling: preventing danger to the soldiers' lives and preventing the military mission - in this case, foiling arms smuggling - from being thwarted.
The IDF also believes that the death of 13 soldiers in three separate incidents in Gaza last week will help the government and the army to muster public support for large-scale house demolitions. Moreover, said IDF officers, this is the last chance to create a different security reality in Gaza before the planned withdrawal from the Strip, since it seems clear that the disengagement plan will eventually be implemented despite its rejection by Likud members in a referendum earlier this month.
But even if the court and the public approve, the international reaction is likely to be harsh. Ireland, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, yesterday demanded that Israel "immediately" stop the demolition of Palestinian houses in Rafah and instead take steps to respect the Palestinians' dignity and improve their standard of living. The present violence, the statement added, merely proves that the conflict cannot be solved by military means and underscores the urgent need to resume negotiations.