- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

Israel assured the United States this week that it will not widen a security corridor it controls in the Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border, an operation that would demolish hundreds of Palestinian homes, U.S. and Israeli officials said yesterday.

The pledge was made by Israel’s deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, during a meeting with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Tuesday, the officials said.

Israel continued military raids in Rafah refugee camp near the border yesterday. More than 40 Palestinians have been killed in three days of attacks, including missile strikes.

Mr. Olmert made clear that Israel’s efforts to destroy tunnels, which it says are being used to smuggle weapons to militant groups, will continue, and houses may be damaged in the process, an Israeli official said.

“The minister told Secretary Powell that reports about widening the corridor are not true,” he said. “Israel does not have a wholesale policy of home demolitions, and our Supreme Court has ruled that cannot happen unless there is an immediate military need.”

A senior State Department official with knowledge of the meeting said a broader promise was made, leaving out the warning that houses may be destroyed in the tunnel operation.

“When Olmert was here, he said there will be no further demolitions of homes and they don’t intend to widen” the corridor, the official said.

Israeli officials reportedly floated a plan late last week to expand in some parts the 4.5-mile-long buffer zone, which is now 250 yards wide.

“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 was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

A day after killing Palestinian civilians at a demonstration in Gaza against the tunnels operation, which provoked angry protests from around the world, the Israeli military yesterday pushed deeper into the Rafah refugee camp in search of gunmen and weapons smugglers.

Eight Palestinians were killed, bringing the death toll to 41 in three days, and several buildings demolished, reports from the region said. Among those killed was Khalid Abu Anza, 37, the local head of the armed wing of the radical movement Hamas, who died in a morning air strike.

Residents were reported as saying that troops knocked down a small zoo, a rare place of amusement for refugee children. Palestinian boys were seen chasing a bewildered-looking ostrich through the streets.

But the Israeli army, which has demolished dozens of Rafah homes during the raid, denied flattening the zoo.

Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, the army’s chief spokeswoman, said the Rafah offensive — dubbed “Operation Rainbow” and the largest in Gaza in years — would continue until troops obliterate weapons-smuggling tunnels and round up militants along the border.

Hundreds of Israeli peace activists demonstrated outside the Defense Ministry against the Rafah operation, holding signs calling for an immediate withdrawal from Gaza and a stop to the killing.

Israel’s actions defied a worldwide outcry on Wednesday that culminated in a United Nations resolution calling for an end to home demolitions and killing of civilians.

In a rare move, the United States allowed the document to pass by abstaining instead of using its veto power. Israeli officials yesterday said they were “disappointed.”

“It reflects policy views that we are in accord with,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said about the resolution.

He told reporters Washington did not support it because it lacked the necessary context by leaving out measures the Palestinians need to take.

“While we believe that Israel has the right to act to defend itself and its citizens, we do not see that its operations in Gaza in the last few days serve the purposes of peace and security,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday.

The Israeli army apologized for the firing on civilians in the Wednesday incident, expressing “deep sorrow over the loss of civilian lives.”

Justice Minister Yosef Lapid called it a mistake and “a human tragedy, a political tragedy and another tragedy of our stay in Gaza. Written all over this tragedy is the fact that this situation cannot go on.”

But Israel said yesterday some of the condemnation abroad went too far. It said it was “sickened” by comments from Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. Mr. Cowen accused the Jewish state of “reckless disregard for human life.”

“Ireland’s ambassador to Israel, Patrick Hennessy, was summoned to the foreign ministry for a meeting during which he was informed that Israel was sickened by the declarations” of Mr. Cowen, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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