BBC Online – 2004-05-25 11:26:01
(May 25, 2004) — May has been one of the worst months in last three years, the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees said, with 575 people made homeless in the last week. Israeli forces have now withdrawn from Rafah, but the halt in the operation was described by the army as a “pause”.
The raid into Gaza, the Israeli army said, was aimed at destroying militant groups and arms smuggling tunnels. A senior Israeli officer described Monday’s pullout as a temporary measure, saying his forces were taking “a deep breath”.
About 45 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in the operation. Israel says seven of these were civilians, but Palestinian hospital sources say only 17 of the dead were gunmen and at least 12 were children under the age of 16 years.
There is also disagreement on the number of houses destroyed. Palestinian sources say the figure is about 300, while Israelis say the figure is 56 houses destroyed or damaged. The UN says 45 houses were completely razed.
Israel came under intense international criticism for its actions in Rafah during the operation, including a rare critical United Nations Security Council resolution which the United States did not veto.
Rafah residents said the Israeli withdrawal had left behind a trail of destruction.
“It looks like an earthquake hit,” Rafah resident Sami Fuja told Reuters news agency on Monday.
Support for Gaza Plan
Israel’s deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said on Tuesday that a majority was emerging in the 21-member Israeli cabinet for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan.
The cabinet is due to vote on the plan next week, after it was rejected earlier this month by Mr Sharon’s Likud party.
Egypt on Monday emerged as a key mediator between Israel and the Palestinians over the Gaza pullout plan.
Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman met Mr Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Monday, relaying messages between them.
Mr Suleiman said Egypt was willing to play a major role in assuring security in Gaza and an orderly Israeli withdrawal.