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US Diplomat Says Israel Vows Not to Demolish More Gaza Houses - 2004-05-21

A senior U.S. diplomat says Israel told the United States this week it will not demolish any more Palestinian housing in the Gaza strip. Israeli operations there have drawn expressions of concern from the Bush administration, which refrained from vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel on Wednesday.

The Bush administration has been unusually blunt in its criticism of Israeli tactics in Gaza, and a senior diplomat here says the United States has been told that Israel will refrain from further house-demolitions in the area, or seek to widen a buffer zone along the Egyptian border.

The assurance was said to have been conveyed to Secretary of State Colin Powell in a meeting with Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert late Tuesday. The pledge was not announced at the time by either side.

Israeli forces have bulldozed scores of multi-family homes along the border in Rafah since last week in what it says is an effort to smash tunnels used by Palestinian militants to smuggle weapons from Egypt. There had been reports that it planned to demolish hundreds more to create a wider open strip along the border.

The senior U.S. diplomat, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said it could not be determined yet if the commitment made by Mr. Olmert was being kept.

Violent clashes in Rafah between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants continued Thursday with at least seven Palestinians reported killed. At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher again called on the parties to exercise maximum restraint.

He also said the fighting illustrates the need to get moving on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for "disengagement" from the Palestinians, which would include a full withdrawal from Gaza:

"In terms of disengagement from Gaza, we think it is a good idea. We think the very unfortunate events, the involvement of both sides in the unfortunate deaths and humanitarian problems created by the operation demonstrate, in a sad way, that it would be better to remove this kind of friction and would be better to remove these points of conflict, and to have Israeli disengagement the way the Israelis have talked about it, and to have the Palestinians take responsibility in that area," he said.

Mr. Boucher said Secretary of State Powell spoke to Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath in a continuing diplomatic effort to defuse the Gaza situation. He also said U.S. diplomats were in contact with officials in Egypt about cross-border weapons smuggling.

Despite the pledge from Israel to curb house-demolitions, the United States stepped aside Wednesday and allowed the U.N. Security Council to condemn Israeli tactics in Gaza by a 14-0 vote.

Mr. Boucher said the United States abstained because the Algerian-sponsored resolution, despite some amendments, did not in his words "sufficiently address the context" of the latest events.

The United States has used the same reasoning in recent years to veto Middle East draft resolutions condemning Israel.