High Court to Renew Debate on IDF House Demolitions in Rafah

The High Court of Justice was to renew its debate Sunday morning on the legality of the Israel Defense Forces demolition of homes in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.

Justice Eliahu Mazza on Friday issued an interim order barring the IDF from demolishing homes in the town's refugee camp, if the action is not part of a regular military operation.

The injunction was issued after Palestinian residents of Rafah petitioned the High Court against GOC Southern Command, saying the IDF planned to demolish houses in order to widen the Philadelphi Route, which demarcates the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

Over the weekend, the IDF conducted a mass demolition of buildings in the Rafah refugee camp, destroying as many as 88 homes and leaving more than 1,000 people homeless, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said Saturday.

The route is site of a Wednesday attack on a military vehicle in which five soldiers were killed. Two more soldiers were killed nearby by a Palestinian sniper on Friday.

According to the IDF, all of the homes destroyed in Rafah over the few several days were demolished during battles with Palestinians, not as part of any plan to destroy houses.

National Union MK Aryeh Eldad said the High Court ban on demolitions in Rafah would facilitate the spilling of the blood of both soldiers and settlers, Israel Radio reported late on Saturday.

Left-wing MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) also asked Attorney General Menachem Mazuz to ban IDF troops from destroying hundreds of Palestinian houses in Rafah, saying it was an illegitimate act of revenge, Israel Radio reported Saturday.

IDF armored bulldozers knocked down dozens of structures, trying to secure the area for soldiers searching for the remains of five comrades killed in a blast in the area Wednesday. The soldiers completed their search for remains Saturday morning, and withdrew from the area.

Palestinian sources said that three people had been buried under the rubble, including a man whose body was found under the ruins of his house as the troops withdrew Saturday.

Witnesses reported that Ashraf Kishtaf, 37, was buried with his wife and sister-in-law, but they were later found to have escaped. The IDF said the house was destroyed during a heavy exchange of fire.

The European Union and the UN on Friday condemned the demolitions, and called on Israel to halt the process.

Panic-stricken residents grabbed whatever belongings they could carry and fled, some waving white flags at approaching Israeli forces, witnesses said.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Friday strongly condemned the destruction, urging Israel to stop its "violation of international law."

Annan cited reports of the demolition "of scores of buildings over the last two days, in addition to 130 residential buildings already destroyed this month."

"The secretary-general has repeatedly called on the government of Israel to address its security needs within the boundaries of international law," UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said in a statement.

"He urges Israel to uphold its obligations as an occupying power by immediately halting such actions, which are tantamount to collective punishment and a clear violation of international law," Eckhard said.

Brian Cowen, the foreign minister of Ireland, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, published a communique demanding that Israel immediately halt the demolitions.

In the statement, Cowen recalled that at the beginning of the month, the Quartet of Middle East peace brokers called on Israel to refrain from demolishing homes or damaging Palestinian property as punishment or in order to advance construction of Israeli settlements.

A representative of UNRWA described the action as collective punishment. The spokesman cast doubt over IDF claims that it would to provide alternative housing for those people rendered homeless by the demolitions and questioned whether all the houses tipped for demolition had housed terrorists or arms-smuggling tunnels.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom responded sharply to the EU criticism, Army Radio reported Saturday, admonishing the European body for choosing only to comment on the demolition of houses in a week in which 13 IDF soldiers had been killed.

IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon told Israel Radio on Friday that a projectile fired from one of the houses in the camp had struck the IDF armored personnel carrier in which five soldiers were killed.

"There's a process whereby the first row of houses is abandoned and used for digging tunnels for smuggling weapons and cover for shooting," he said. "We've been forced to destroy houses here in the past and apparently we'll have to destroy more houses in the future."

Left-wing lawmaker Yossi Sarid (Meretz) told Israel Radio that the mass demolition of Palestinian buildings along the route would be a war crime and warned against "razing half of the town of Rafah."

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the plan as a "total contradiction" to what Sharon has presented as a disengagement initiative to reduce points of conflict with Palestinians after three and a half years of fighting.

"This is a catastrophe. At a time when the Israelis are speaking of disengaging from Gaza this is really re-engaging," he said. "I hope that President Bush, who says he is encouraged by disengagement, will interfere to stop the demolitions."

Palestinians carry out daily attacks against Israeli positions and soldiers in the area adjoining Rafah refugee camp, where the army has already demolished hundreds of homes in searches for arms smuggling tunnels.

The IDF said the current demolitions were not part of a plan to widen the Philadelphi Route. The plan to expand the route was reportedly approved Thursday at a high-level meeting attended by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and other top officials.

"It's a measure that we are taking to provide better protection for armored personnel carriers and the soldiers, and to reshape that theater of war so we will enjoy an advantage and not the Palestinians," one Israeli official said about the flashpoint corridor.

A source in Jerusalem said the IDF intends to destroy "dozens or perhaps hundreds" of homes and widen the 9-km long buffer zone in the southern Strip, once soldiers complete a search in the area for the remains of their comrades blown up two days ago.

Five Palestinians, including four armed militants, were reportedly killed overnight Thursday in the Gaza Strip.

Three of the militants were shot dead as they approached soldiers on guard along the Egyptian border. Troops later found explosive devices near the bodies, Israel Radio reported.

A fourth Palestinian militant was killed when a bomb he was carrying exploded in his hands just outside the Rafah Yam settlement.

Another Palestinian man was killed Friday in an IAF helicopter missile strike in the Rafah refugee camp.