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Israeli Troops Re-Enter Refugee Camp in Gaza - 2003-10-14


Israeli troops and tanks have re-entered a refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip to shut down what Israeli authorities describe as tunnels used by Palestinian militants to smuggle in weapons from neighboring Egypt. Witnesses say at least six Palestinians have been injured during the operation.

Israeli troops backed by helicopter gunships and dozens of armored vehicles entered the Rafah refugee camp. Military officials say this is part of an ongoing effort to shut down arms smuggling tunnels. They say the operation could last several days.

Witnesses say army bulldozers demolished several homes and troops took over some buildings and set up positions on rooftops.

Israeli forces previously entered the Rafah camp early last Friday and left three days later, after destroying several Palestinian homes along with several tunnels. Fierce firefights broke out between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen and eight Palestinians, including two children, were killed.

A senior U.N. official said Israeli forces destroyed more than 100 homes in Rafah, leaving more than 1,000 people homeless.

Israeli military officials have denied accusations that the army is using heavy-handed tactics and a disproportionate amount of force in its operations in the camp.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military ordered that 15 Palestinian detainees be expelled from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. The detainees, who have not been charged with any crimes, have been given 48 hours to appeal the expulsion order.

The military issued a similar expulsion order last year for several relatives of suspected terrorists. Israel argues such expulsions are necessary to deter future attacks. Palestinians and human-rights groups denounce the practice as a violation of international law.

The latest Israeli military action follows the unveiling of an unofficial peace agreement drawn up by prominent Israelis and Palestinians, including former peace negotiators and government ministers.

The so-called Geneva Agreement was drawn up after more than two years of secret talks financed by the Swiss government. It provides for a Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinians would, in effect, forego their demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to areas that would be part of Israel. Jerusalem would be shared by both sides and the Palestinians would be granted sovereignty over the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, a part of the Old City which is holy to both Jews and Muslims.

The symbolic agreement is to be signed in Switzerland in the coming weeks. Israeli government officials have denounced the accord as irresponsible action of opposition politicians trying to bring down the current government.

Former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, the chief architect of the Geneva agreement, said it was meant to give people on both sides hope, which he said the current Israeli government is failing to do. His Palestinian counterpart, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said it was in important step to fill the existing void and to say that a peace process is still on. Mr. Abed Rabbo is a former cabinet minister and a close associate of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

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