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Sharon Reprimands Critics of Gaza Demolitions - 2002-01-13

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has clashed with members of his cabinet over the Israel army demolition of homes last week in a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Some Cabinet ministers say the operation badly damaged Israel's image abroad.

An angry Mr. Sharon sharply reprimanded members of the Labor Party faction for public criticism of the government. He was addressing a Cabinet meeting after some Labor ministers had spoken out against the Israeli army's destruction of houses in Gaza's Rafah refugee camp. The operation followed the killing of four Israeli soldiers at an outpost near the border of the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army says the homes had been abandoned and were being used by Palestinian snipers, and that tunnels had been found beneath some of them for the purpose of smuggling arms from Egypt. The Red Cross says 95 families, or about 600 people, were left homeless.

Three Labor ministers, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, said the destruction had given a bad media image, and they questioned the necessity of the operation for security purposes. Mr. Sharon hit back, saying the ministers should not have spoken about the issue before hearing all the facts. He said the public criticism would serve only those engaging in anti-Israeli propaganda.

The Israeli military commander in the Gaza Strip, Brigadier General Yisrael Ziv, says a total of 21 houses were destroyed and that all had been empty. He accused the Palestinians of making political capital out of the operation, while Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer pledged that if the demolished homes had in fact been occupied, then Israel would provide the displaced Palestinians with mobile homes.