Friday, May 21, 2004

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Israeli troops pulled back from two neighborhoods in this sprawling Palestinian refugee camp yesterday, leaving behind demolished homes, torn-up roads and flattened cars. They said the offensive — aimed to search out arms-smuggling tunnels and militants — was not over.

Army spokeswoman Maj. Sharon Feingold said “dozens” of Palestinians, including senior suspected militants, had been detained and a local leader of the armed group Hamas had been killed. The army said no tunnels had been found.

“The operation has not ended; we have redeployed forces and allowed residents to stock up on food,” Maj. Feingold said.

At least 43 homes have been demolished and dozens more damaged in the camp since the offensive began Tuesday, municipal officials said. Forty Palestinians have been killed, including gunmen and eight demonstrators hit by the explosion of a tank shell.

Maj. Feingold said five houses were demolished after they were used as cover by militants to attack troops. Other damage to homes and roads was caused by heavy military vehicles and Palestinian militants’ roadside bombs, the army said.

In the Brazil neighborhood, 25 houses were razed and streets were torn up, local officials said. In many cases, the facades of houses caved in or were shorn off after wide armored vehicles moved through the narrow alleys.

Residents picked through the rubble, retrieving mattresses, photo albums, shoes and clothing.

“I hardly recognized my own street,” said Abdel Rahim Abu Jazer, 42, a teacher. “I don’t think an earthquake could do what the Israeli army did to this area.”

Reporters were still unable yesterday to get into the hardest-hit neighborhood, Tel Sultan, which lost water and electricity for part of the Israeli offensive.

U.N. officials said several water trucks reached the area yesterday, negotiating torn-up roads to bring fresh supplies to some of the neighborhood’s 25,000 residents.

Mohammed Jumaa, the owner of a zoo in Tel Sultan, said Israeli troops, backed by bulldozers, demolished cages and pens, killing some animals and setting dozens more free. A headless ostrich, dead chickens and a peacock littered the ground. A tiger, some 55 African and American parrots, a variety of snakes and several raccoons and monkeys were missing, Mr. Jumaa said.

The Israeli army said it was checking the report.

A key objective of the offensive remains the widening of an Israeli patrol road between Rafah and the Egyptian border, which would make it more difficult for weapons smugglers to dig tunnels.

Widening the road also would require the demolition of dozens of Palestinian homes, a security official said.

Israel’s vice prime minister, Ehud Olmert, assured Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in a meeting in Washington earlier this week that the buffer zone would not be widened, U.S. officials said. However, Israeli security officials said yesterday the army is still pushing for an expansion of the zone by at least 300 yards.

Israel launched “Operation Rainbow” on Tuesday, less than a week after 13 soldiers were killed by militants in the Gaza Strip.

The United States, European Union and United Nations have called for a halt to home demolitions. U.S. criticism was unusually sharp, and in a rare move the Bush administration allowed the passage of a stinging U.N. resolution condemning the operation.

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