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Our worst fears have been realized. At least eight civilians, most of them school children, were killed yesterday and dozens were wounded when a tank shell exploded in the middle of a demonstration by hundreds of Palestinians in Rafah. The pictures broadcast to the world were difficult to look at. This is a tragic incident which the Israel Defense Forces clearly did not expect to happen, but when an army wages warfare in a populated area, this is the result. This disaster follows on the heels of the disturbing scenes from Rafah over the past few days, of the destruction of houses, of walls pockmarked by shells, and of hundreds of families fleeing on foot or on wagons pulled by donkeys.

It is painful to see yesterday's dead and wounded, heartbreaking to see the small children carrying bundles on their backs. It is a distressing sight to view old people and women gathering possessions and fleeing north out of fear of shooting and bulldozers. They do not know whether they will be able to return and whether their pitiful homes - 80 percent of the homes in the refugee camp do not have concrete roofs and are covered by tin or asbestos - will still be there.

Until the start of the intifada, the houses in the Rafah refugee camp were only a few meters from the border. But since October 2000, the IDF began tearing down the houses closest to the border because of exchanges of fire, and now houses standing at a distance of up to 300 meters from the border have been marked for demolition. According to UNRWA figures, 88 buildings have been destroyed in Rafah over the past few days and 1,064 people have been rendered homeless. Since the start of the intifada, 1,309 structures have been destroyed and 11,000 people left homeless.

All this destruction has done nothing to lessen the number of incidents and casualties nor the chain of bloody clashes. In the week since the 13 IDF soldiers were killed in the Zaitoun quarter of Gaza and at the Philadelphi Route, 57 Palestinians have been killed in the Rafah area, most of them gunmen but among them also two youths aged 14 and 16, and excluding yesterday's casualties from the demonstration. These acts will merely strengthen the wall of hatred between the two peoples. People whose homes have been demolished and whose fields have been overrun by tanks, and the family members of those who were killed and wounded in yesterday's demonstration, can now be expected to join the surging ranks of hostility. The damage to Israel's image in the world is immense, and Israel after all is dependent on international public opinion, and particularly that of the Americans.

The IDF has always inculcated its soldiers with the belief that innocent people must not be hurt, that there can be no killing or destruction except in cases where it is immediately necessary to defend lives, and that a patently illegal order should not be obeyed. The commanders of the army understood that, without a moral basis for its actions, even the best-equipped army cannot win. These moral values, however, have been badly eroded in the long years of occupation and with the action in Rafah, they have suffered yet another blow, so that our national fortitude has been undermined.

Not everything is permissible in the name of security. The military operation in Rafah is clumsy from the operational point of view and its results are destructive. If there are indeed any security achievements, these will be outweighed by the serious harm done to the town of Rafah and its residents - and also to the IDF.