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Israeli Forces Destroy Key Symbol For Palestinian Statehood - 2002-01-11

Israeli tanks and bulldozers have destroyed the runway at the Palestinian-controlled airport in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for an attack that killed four Israeli soldiers.

In a statement, the Israeli army has said a combined force of combat engineers, armor and a desert patrol battalion tore up the landing strip at the airport, which is seen as a key symbol of Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

The military said the decision to destroy the runway was in response to an attack by members of the Islamic group Hamas on an army post earlier this week that killed four Israeli soldiers.

The army said commandos arrested eight Palestinians wanted for arms smuggling in Rafah, a town in Gaza on the border with Egypt.

Soldiers also cut off a main road in southern Gaza and detained a number of Palestinians in the West Bank.

The moves came a day after Israeli bulldozers flattened dozens of Palestinian homes in the Rafah refugee camp in retaliation for the Hamas attack. The operation left hundreds of Palestinians homeless.

A senior aid to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said the Israeli action will lead to more "violence and tension."

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said leaving Palestinians homeless in the cold weather will only deepen their despair and anger.

"Nothing can justify the demolition of Palestinian houses, the expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes, especially this winter. Nothing can justify the attacks of the Israelis against Palestinian areas, especially Palestinian refugee camps," he said.

Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner said the Jewish state will continue to respond to any attacks by the Palestinians.

"The Palestinians must understand that those who shoot at us or those who shelter terrorists will not be immune from Israeli action," he said.

This week's violence shattered a few weeks of relative calm that followed Mr. Arafat's call last month for an end to suicide bombings and armed attacks against Israelis.

The continuing conflict is threatening to undermine U.S. led efforts to broker a permanent cease-fire after more than 15-months of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.