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Israel Finds Tunnel in Rafah As Minister Likens Actions to Shoah

May 24, 2004
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Israel ended its operation in a Gaza Strip refugee camp this week amid heated criticism — even from within the Israeli government. During the weeklong Operation Rainbow, the army killed 41 Palestinian terrorists and 11 civilians and destroyed three tunnels used to smuggle weapons, Brig. Gen. Shmuel Zakai said. Zakai also said 56 homes were demolished.

But in Jerusalem over the weekend, Israel’s actions suffered their worst critique from inside Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s own government.

“On television I saw an old woman rummaging through the ruins of her home in Rafah, searching for her medication, and she reminded me of my grandmother who was expelled from her home during the Holocaust,” Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, who as a boy fled the Nazi invasion of Hungary, was quoted as telling Cabinet colleagues Sunday.

International criticism has mounted of Israel’s demolition of dozens of homes in Rafah to widen a security zone between Rafah and Egypt.

“Ultimately they will kick us out of the United Nations, they will prosecute the responsible parties at The Hague and no one will want to talk with us,” said Lapid, leader of the Shinui Party.

Lapid’s words were not welcomed by Sharon, who has increased Israel’s military presence in southern Gaza while pushing for an Israeli withdrawal plan from the crowded strip.

After a rebuke from Sharon, Lapid clarified his remarks.

“To remove any doubt, I do not meant to liken us to the Germans or the Holocaust,” he told Israel Radio. “But we must remember that we are a humane people, we are Jews and we have commitment beyond just our security needs.”

Israeli army operations intensified after Palestinians killed 13 Israeli soldiers in Rafah two weeks ago.

Last week, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israel for the demolition of Palestinian homes in Rafah, which Israel said was done for security reasons.

The United States abstained from the vote, signaling its dissatisfaction with Israeli actions by departing from its usual policy of vetoing any U.N. Security Council resolution on the Middle East that does not also condemn Arab terrorism.

For his part, Sharon reportedly has revised his withdrawal plan from Gaza and parts of the West Bank in an effort to accommodate Likud voters who rejected his original pullout plan in a party referendum May 2. Sharon is expected to present the revised plan Thursday.

Opponents of the plan maintain that withdrawing from Gaza under Palestinian fire amounts to a concession that will encourage terrorism. Sharon now is said to be crafting a plan that will call for an incremental rather than a sweeping withdrawal.

But with many Israelis still upset over the killing of 13 soldiers two weeks ago, any compromise is a hard sell.

Israeli officials said the 24-foot-deep tunnel leading into Egypt, discovered Saturday in Rafah’s Brazil neighborhood, is sure to hurt the Rafah arms trade.

But Israel’s Channel Two television reported Sunday that the Palestinian Authority is supplying Rafah terrorists with arms to supplement munitions they have lost to Israeli forces.

Meanwhile, at least 16 Palestinian bodies have gone unburied in Rafah — a result, Palestinians said, of Israeli restrictions on movement in the camp.

Israeli officials accused Palestinians of delaying the burials in order to stage a mass funeral procession.

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