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Israel Continues Gaza Military Operations Despite International Outcry - 2004-05-20

Israeli troops are continuing their controversial military operation in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, despite both international condemnation and domestic criticism. The Gaza operation has prompted calls by some Israelis for an early withdrawal from Gaza and a resumption of peace talks.

Over the past week images of Israeli bulldozers demolishing Palestinian homes in the Rafah refugee camp flashed on Israeli television sets, and around the world.

The images resulted in widespread international criticism, even from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said the United States opposed the demolitions.

But there were more images to come on Wednesday, showing Palestinian demonstrators in Rafah scattering amid Israeli shelling, and Palestinians running through the streets carrying the wounded, including children, and rushing them into ambulances. At least eight Palestinians were killed and Israel later apologized for the civilian deaths.

But, Israeli officials remain adamant about the overall necessity of the Gaza operation, as Foreign Ministry spokesman Gideon Meir explained on Israeli television.

?What we are witnessing is terrorist organizations who are using the civilian population and their houses in order to produce explosives, and to use their houses for snipers, and to use their houses at the end of the tunnels where they're smuggling the weapons into the Gaza Strip,? he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has put forward a plan to unilaterally withdraw all Jewish settlements and the soldiers that protect them from the Gaza Strip. But Israel says the Palestinian Authority has allowed Gaza to become a haven for terrorists, and its current offensive appears aimed at ending that - a move that could be a precursor to a withdrawal.

Justice Minister Josef Lapid describes the Rafah operation as the razor's edge.

Mr. Lapid told Israeli radio the political plan to vacate Gaza is justified. He said the war against terror is also justified. But, he added, what is not justified is firing by mistake into a demonstrating crowd and killing civilians like happened on Wednesday.

Mr. Lapid has been a staunch supporter of Mr. Sharon's plan to get out of Gaza.

Incidents last week seem to have increased public support for the plan, too, as well as providing Israel with a justification for its offensive. Clashes between the military and Palestinian militants in Gaza last week resulted in the deaths of 13 Israeli soldiers.

Those clashes prompted a huge pro-peace rally in Tel Aviv last Saturday, in which more than a 100,000 people gathered in support of Mr. Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan. Many demonstrators also called for the immediate resumption of peace negotiations.

Justice Minister Lapid supports that idea.

Mr. Lapid said that fundamentally what is needed is to advance the peace process with the Palestinians. To do that, he advocates vacating all the Israeli settlements in Gaza and then resuming negotiations with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia. The Israeli Justice Minister says such talks should take place even if there is still violence.

Public opinion polls in Israel show that the vast majority of the Israeli people support a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But the plan was voted down by Mr. Sharon's own Likud party a few weeks ago. A revised plan is now set to be put up for debate in the Cabinet later this month.

The concept of an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza has also won the support of the Bush administration, which sees it as a possible step in restarting the stalled peace process. But the Israeli military operation in Gaza has resulted in criticism from the United States and a rare U.S. abstention in the Security Council Wednesday, which enabled passage of a resolution rebuking Israel for its actions in Gaza.