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"The demolition of houses in Rafah must stop. It is not humane, not Jewish and causes us grave damage in the world," Justice Minister Yosef Lapid told the cabinet yesterday.

Lapid added that he had seen a picture of an elderly Palestinian woman searching in the debris for her medication, and had been reminded of his grandmother [who perished in the Holocaust].

His remarks sparked an uproar in the cabinet since Lapid is a Holocaust survivor and his words were interpreted as a comparison between the IDF and the Nazis.

Specifying the potential damage in the international community, Lapid said: "At the end of the day, they'll kick us out of the United Nations, try those responsible in the international court in The Hague, and no one will want to speak with us."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Lapid to retract his comments.

Mofaz said: "These are very strong statements against the security forces of our country and I ask you to withdraw them."

Shalom added: "Retract your comparison; it is not proper. You cannot compare what you are saying with the way IDF soldiers behave."

Health Minister Dan Naveh told Israel Radio later that even an indirect analogy to the Holocaust was inappropriate and has "no place whatsoever."

But Lapid said his comments had been misunderstood.

"I'm not referring to the Germans. I'm not referring to the Holocaust," Lapid said. "When you see the harm done and you see a helpless old woman, you think of your grandmother."

Lapid said it was inexcusable to read in the papers about an imaginary plan to destroy 2,000-3,000 houses in Rafah to widen the Philadelphi route. "Clearly after the first 100 houses, the world will stop us," he said.

Sharon also expressed anger over Lapid's remarks the previous week that "the human and political tragedy stems from our remaining in Gaza."

"You made very harsh statements based on information gleaned from Arab TV stations," Sharon told Lapid. "The truth behind these statements was not checked and they later transpired to be incorrect. This is pouring oil on the fire and those statements should not have been made."

Mofaz told the ministers the IDF planned to continue the Rafah operation "for a number of days, not weeks." He said the operation was aimed at cutting Rafah off from Khan Yunis, entering the neighborhoods that border on the Philadelphi route and arresting terrorists, searching for tunnels and hitting the armed gunmen who attack Israeli troops.

Mofaz said so far two tunnels had been discovered and several dozen gunmen who attacked the IDF soldiers had been shot. In addition, a number of wanted men had been arrested and the house belonging to the murderer of the Hatuel family, had been destroyed.

He said the terrorists were attempting to upset the balance of weapons by bringing in new arms to the area that would be aimed not only at targets in the Gaza Strip but in Israel itself. "This could lead to a wholesale escalation," he said.

Turning to the incident in which eight Palestinians were killed last week, Mofaz said the tank that fired had not shot at them but at a deserted building and that they had been hurt by shrapnel.

"In many years of fighting, we have had very few mistakes like this," he said.