JERUSALEM (Jan. 13)
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has come under international criticism for his decision to demolish Palestinian homes in the southern Gaza Strip.
A European Union official called the Israeli demolitions “unjustified.”
The International Red Cross said 53 homes were razed and hundreds of Palestinians made homeless as a result of the Jan. 10 demolitions.
Israel razed the homes after a Hamas attack last week on an army outpost near Gaza in which four Israeli soldiers were killed.
The Israel army said only 21 buildings were razed and that all were abandoned. Army officials also said the structures had been used by armed Palestinian gunmen to launch attacks on Israeli targets. Some of the buildings were used to hide tunnels in which arms were smuggled from Egypt to Gaza, the officials added.
Some Israeli Cabinet members also criticized the demolitions.
Labor Party ministers, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Ephraim Sneh, questioned the policy, calling it unnecessary and harmful to Israel’s public image.
Sharon reprimanded the ministers for speaking before being briefed by the army on details of the operation.
He said at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting that the critics were merely serving the interests of Palestinian propaganda.
Education Minister Limor Livnat, a member of Sharon’s Likud Party, rejected claims that the demolitions were an act of collective punishment. She said they were a defensive act designed to prevent attacks by Palestinians.
On Sunday, some 100 Peace Now activists demonstrated in Tel Aviv against the demolitions.
The controversy over the demolitions overshadowed efforts by Israeli officials to link Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to a shipment of smuggled arms that Israel seized on the Red Sea on Jan. 3.
Israeli intelligence officials say they convinced the United States and Egypt of Arafat’s direct ties with Iran in the arms smuggling attempt.
The officials, who last week visited Washington for discussions regarding Israel’s capture of the Karine A weapons ship, said U.S. officials no longer doubt that Arafat personally initiated contacts with Iran that led to the smuggling attempt, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.
Egyptian officials drew the same conclusion after reviewing abridged evidence presented by Israel, the paper added.
Israeli security officials warned that Iran is trying to alter the strategic balance in the region by establishing ties with the Palestinian Authority as well as by drumming up support among Israeli Arabs.
In a related development, Palestinian officials revised the number of suspects they arrested in connection with the arms-smuggling attempt.
On Saturday, the Palestinian Authority said one, not three, officials had been arrested.
But Israel said the suspect, Fuad Shubaki, who is responsible for military acquisitions in the Palestinian Authority, is in Ramallah but not under any form of detention.
When the P.A. initially said three suspects had been arrested, Sharon rejected the claim as a lie. Israeli officials said that two of the suspects supposedly arrested were not even in the Palestinian autonomous areas.