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Israeli Military Operation Leaves Hundreds Homeless, says UN - 2003-10-13

The United Nations says hundreds of Palestinians have been left homeless, following Israel's latest military operations in the Gaza Strip. Israel has denied the claims, saying that it only demolished several buildings, during a raid to uncover and destroy tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt.

A senior U.N. official who visited the densely populated Palestinian Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip says he is shocked by what he says is a picture of devastation.

The head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, Peter Hansen, went to assess the damage following Israel's raid into the camp, code-named "Operation Root Canal."

He says that up to 120 houses were "completely destroyed" and it appeared as though the area had been hit by a severe earthquake.

He says as many as 1,500 Palestinians have been made homeless.

Mr. Hansen said his organization, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians (UNRWA), would start erecting temporary shelters to help ease the humanitarian plight of the residents.

Israel has rejected his claims, saying the army estimates that there has been damage only to "several buildings," with soldiers targeting only structures used by Palestinian militants.

A spokesman for the Israeli army said some buildings had been razed because they had been sitting on top of or near tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt.

He said the army had also found abandoned buildings used as cover by Palestinian gunmen to fire on soldiers.

The operation began after Israel received intelligence warnings that Palestinians were attempting to use tunnels to smuggle highly sophisticated weaponry from Egypt.

Israel suspects that Palestinian militants want to acquire missiles capable of destroying tanks and bringing down military and civilian aircraft.

The Israeli army says it has found three tunnels so far but no weapons.

The operation, which began on Friday, has been scaled down but the army says small groups of soldiers will continue searches for a few more days.