The Israeli army was under heavy fire from critics at home and abroad for razing Palestinian houses and leaving 600 homeless, as US remarks that Israel's military latest operations were "defensive" sparked an angry response in the Arab world.
However, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended the destruction of some 50 Palestinian houses in the Gaza town of Rafah on Thursday, which left up to 600 people homeless, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Homeless Palestinian children receive supplies in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, Sunday Jan. 13, 2002. According to Red Cross officials the Red Cross supplied aid in the form of tents, blankets, hygiene kits, cooking sets, gas lamps and cookers to 93 families, about 600 people, who use to live in the area west of Salahaddin gate in Rafah and lost their houses early Thursday when the Israeli army demolished them. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
"In Rafah there is a system to smuggle through tunnels, and these tunnels are deep now, between 12 and 17 meters, and we had to take all the necessary steps, and Israel will take all the necessary steps to stop the smuggling of weapons," Sharon told reporters in Jerusalem.
The army also ripped up the runway at nearby Gaza international airport and shelled Gaza harbor Saturday, setting boats ablaze and destroying a fuel dump, leaving the Palestinian navy unable to go to sea, Palestinian officials said.
The attacks came a week after Israel seized a ship carrying 50 tons of weapons it said were destined for the Palestinian Authority.
They also followed a Palestinian raid into southern Israel from Gaza which killed four Israeli soldiers as well as two attackers from the militant Islamic group Hamas, which had said last month it would heed Yasser Arafat's call for a truce.
One of the attackers was said to be a member of the naval police.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Israeli operations were "defensive" and in response to arms smuggling which Israel said was linked to its arch-enemy, Iran.
However, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said there was "no basis" for allegations Iran was involved in the massive cargo of weapons which Israeli marine commandos seized aboard the Karine A freighter in the Red Sea on January 3. Tehran has also denied it was any military cooperation with the Palestinians.
Arafat also claimed the Palestinians could buy the weapons illegally from Israelis during an interview with the Qatar-based al-Jazeera satellite television channel.
"I want to tell you something: the Israelis will sell you anything. If the Palestinians want to buy arms, they will buy them from Israel. Believe me, the Israelis sell everything," said Arafat, who has been under virtual house arrest in the West Bank city of Ramallah for more than a month.
There was also strong criticism inside Israel for the decision to destroy the dozens of houses the military said were used to smuggle arms and fire on Israeli border posts.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Science and Culture Minister Matan Vilnai both voiced concern at the destruction.
Vilnai said the army should have used a less indiscriminate response than bulldozing dozens of houses, its harshest such operation since the Palestinian uprising broke out more than 15 months ago.
"They should have used some commonsense, gone about it another way and given the families caravans to live in instead of the demolished houses," he said. "Israeli cannot allow itself to strike blindly."
Vilnai also expressed concern at the damage to Israel's image, while Peres demanded "clear explanations" for the action, which the army claimed had destroyed 22 uninhabited buildings.
Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the operation constituted a "crime against humanity" and called on Washington to adopt a "constructive position."
The head of the Israeli rights group Peace Now, Moria Shlomot, called the mid-winter destruction of homes "an unconscionable and inhumane act (which) has nothing to do with security."
As the ICRC said it had distributed tents, blankets and cooking utensils to almost 500 people in Rafah, several dozen Peace Now militants staged a demonstration outside the defense ministry office in Tel Aviv, radio reported.
"Our government has lost all moral conscience and its illegal orders involve us all, and particularly our young soldiers," the movement said in a statement.
Zeev Schiff, military analyst for the daily Haaretz, lashed out at "an act of undisguised ruthlessness, a military act devoid of humanitarian and diplomatic logic, based on simplistic and over-generalized operational considerations."
Other commentators in the daily said the operation was almost certainly illegal and, as collective punishment, could be classed as a "war crime."
The latest Israeli actions also drew criticism from the European Union's new acting presidency, Spain.
Foreign Minister Josep Pique told the Arabic daily Al-Hayat before heading off on a Middle East tour Monday: "These acts cannot be justified in any way and cannot be included in the anti-terror struggle."
"We cannot justify actions such as the destruction of Gaza airport as part of the anti-terrorist struggle," said Pique, due to visit Jordan, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Lebanon.
"The latest events and the terrorists acts have dangerously heightened tension ... which does not give cause for optimism," Pique said.
Copyright © 2001 AFP