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Israel Finds Tunnel in Rafah As Minister Likens Actions to Shoah

May 24, 2004
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Israel’s operation in the Gaza Strip got its most tangible achievement this weekend — and some scathing criticism from inside the government.

In southern Gaza, Israeli military forces uncovered an arms-smuggling tunnel in Rafah, a Palestinian refugee camp near the border with Egypt, where Israel has been focusing its counterterrorist operations.

In Jerusalem, 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 fled the Nazi invasion of his native Hungary as a boy, was quoted as telling Cabinet colleagues Sunday.

Commenting on mounting international criticism of Israel’s demolition of dozens of homes in Rafah to widen a security zone between Rafah and Egypt, Lapid said, “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.”

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 being rebuked by Sharon, Lapid, who is from the Shinui Party, 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.”

Lapid’s remarks were the latest in a series of rebukes of Israel’s actions in recent days in Rafah. Israeli army operations there intensified after Palestinians killed 13 Israeli soldiers in Rafah two weeks ago.

In the fighting since, more than 40 Palestinians have been killed, including several who were killed when an Israeli tank apparently fired on a crowd of protesters. Dozens of Palestinian homes also have been demolished.

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

The United States uncharacteristically abstained from the vote, signaling its dissatisfaction with Israeli actions in Rafah 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.

Opponents of the plan maintain that withdrawing from Gaza under Palestinian fire amounts to a concession that will encourage Palestinian terrorism. So instead, Sharon is said to be crafting a plan that will call for an incremental, rather than sweeping, withdrawal in which a few settlements will be removed in Gaza and the West Bank.

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

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

But Israel’s Channel Two said Sunday that Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority was 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.

But Israeli officials have accused the Palestinians of delaying the burials in order to stage a mass funeral procession when troops pull out of the strip in the near future, as Israel has promised.

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