- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Israel’s army said it destroyed 56 buildings in the Gaza Strip border city of Rafah during a weeklong incursion aimed at uncovering weapons-smuggling tunnels.

The demolitions are part of the worst month of damage in a Palestinian city during the 3 years of fighting with Israel.

“Of all places in … West Bank and Gaza, Rafah has suffered more than any town in terms of loss of life and loss of property and ceaseless conflict,” said Paul McCann, a spokesman for United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). “There are ceaseless incursions every day. It’s been a very blighted town.”

After Israel pulled out of most of Rafah this week, wary residents emerged to survey the damage and remained bitter about the dead and damaged property and also fearful of a new offensive.

An Israeli army spokesman said the houses destroyed during “Operation Rainbow” served as cover for militants who fired on Israeli troops and triggered roadside bombs. Some of the houses had obscured the entrances of three tunnels discovered during the operation, the army said.

According to the UNRWA, nearly 2,000 people have been made homeless in May by the destruction of 155 buildings — more than half the number of houses destroyed during a military offensive in a Jenin refugee camp two years ago. The damage also represents a sizable chunk of the 1,350 buildings that have been wrecked in Rafah since the beginning of the conflict.

Israel launched the offensive after 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in the Gaza Strip this month. But the high number of casualties and scenes of displaced Palestinians picking through the rubble of their homes sparked fierce international criticism. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution last week condemning the operation.

In the Tel Sultan and Brazil neighborhoods of Rafah, Israeli tanks, troop transports and D-9 caterpillar bulldozers made streets barely navigable.

In Tel Sultan, Abdel Rahim Dahliz, 45, reclined on a pillow on a pile of sand, concrete and piping, where his six-room, one-story house stood until this week. Now, the father of 13 sat under a rug canopy held up by five wooden sticks.

“They want to smash us. They want to destroy us,” said Mr. Dahliz, as he looked out onto the small trenches of overturned earth where he used to have greenhouses and melon crops.

Sitting next to a crate filled with a rolling pin, a broken mixer and kitchen utensils, Intessar Breqer compared the destruction in Rafah to the damage left by the Israeli army’s offensive in Jenin in 2002.

“I have two boys, and I ask my God every year to bring another boy to be a suicide bomber,” Mr. Breqer said.”

The Associated Press, citing doctors, said 45 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire during the Rafah operation, including at least 17 gunmen and 12 children younger than 16. The army said 41 “terrorists” were killed.

In the Brazil neighborhood, the damage seemed more widespread. A large yard, which once housed a zoo where Rafah children could visit for 1 shekel, was turned into a field of animal corpses — a wounded raccoon that died a day after the incursion and an ostrich barely hidden under a felled palm branches.

Zoo co-owner Mohammed Ahmed Juma estimated that he lost $500,000 worth of animals, including 1,700 of 3,000 birds that were freed.

“This was my dream. It was the only zoo in Gaza,” he said. “But the soldiers don’t want something pretty for the children.”

The military said the zoo was used as a path for armored vehicles because the streets nearby were full of mines.

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