Tuesday, May 18, 2004

BERLIN — National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice criticized an Israeli plan to demolish hundreds of Palestinian houses yesterday, speaking as Gaza residents fled their homes in the face of Israeli tanks.

While acknowledging Israel’s need to protect itself, the Bush administration considers the demolitions a “subject of concern,” Miss Rice said after a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

Israeli tanks cut off the Rafah refugee camp from the rest of Gaza yesterday, sending panicked residents fleeing. Helicopters fired missiles at the camp hours later, killing at least seven persons and wounding two dozen, residents said.

Early today, Palestinian security officials said armored bulldozers moved to the edge of the camp near the border with Egypt and began leveling land in an Israeli-controlled zone.

Israel has said it will widen a patrol road between Rafah and the Egyptian border.

Israeli helicopter gunships attacked twice after midnight. Palestinians said that, around dawn, two missiles killed at least four persons as they left a mosque after morning prayers. They said 17 others were wounded.

The Ha’aretz newspaper Web site said yesterday the army was preparing to send in a large detachment of forces into Rafah, which could very well become the broadest incursion into a Gaza population center since the start of the uprising in September 2000.

Piling trucks with blankets, gas stoves, mattresses and food, families moved en masse to makeshift lodgings in public buildings and tents erected in the middle of Rafah’s roads. The thumping of Israeli Apache helicopters over the town created a sense of impending doom.

“People expect that there will be a big incursion. No one can go out or enter Rafah,” said Ghazi Hamad, the editor of an Islamic newspaper affiliated with Hamas. “People are worried. This night is going to be a very long night.”

Miss Rice’s meeting in Berlin made her just the second senior administration official to talk to Mr. Qureia since he took office last year. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who on Sunday called the Israeli demolitions “not … productive,” met with him in Jordan on Saturday.

Though offering few details of her talks with Mr. Qureia, Miss Rice called it “a very good meeting.”

Palestinians were incensed last month when President Bush endorsed Israeli hopes of permanently keeping parts of the West Bank and ruled out the return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel.

But Miss Rice said during a round-table discussion with journalists that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had come to recognize “that its time for Israel to share the land with the Palestinians.”

“We believe there’s nothing wrong with unilateral steps in the right direction,” Miss Rice said, provided such actions correspond to the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.

If Israel’s proposed withdrawal from Gaza held the potential “to unlock a process that had been locked up for the past three years” it was worthwhile, she said.

• Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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