Israeli troops go on rampage in Gaza

Israeli troops unleashed a campaign of terror on the Palestinian residents of the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip last week, using tanks, helicopter gunships, missiles and bulldozers to demolish hundreds of Palestinian homes and render thousands of people homeless in a matter of days. At least 19 Palestinians, including several children, were killed on May 18 alone.

Eyewitnesses reported hundreds of panic-stricken residents gathering up whatever household belongings they could – clothes, blankets, mattresses, refrigerators, school books – and loading up horse-drawn carts, cars, and pick-ups to flee the advancing Israeli tanks and bulldozers.

“Two years ago, they tore down my first house on top of me,” one of the daughters of the a-Sha’ar family told a reporter from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Now, the moment I heard them approaching, I fled.”

The Israeli military operations – including a horrible massacre of many children and teenagers at a protest demonstration May 19 – provoked a worldwide outcry, with the notable exception of President Bush, who refused to condemn the Sharon government’s actions.

Israeli officials claimed they needed to demolish hundreds of homes in the area to render a huge swath of land between the Gaza Strip and Egypt more secure against weapons smugglers.

However, the massive and indiscriminate destruction was widely denounced as an act of collective punishment against the Palestinian people in the wake of the deaths of 13 Israeli soldiers killed during an earlier incursion. Thirty-two Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops in that same episode.

Peter Hansen, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, decried the terrible humanitarian crisis in Rafah, adding, “With these disproportionate military operations, Israel is in grave breach of international law. This collective punishment can do nothing to calm the situation in Gaza or enhance Israel’s own security.”

Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, told Electronicintifada.com that attacks on non-combatants, collective punishment, and the demolition of homes constitute war crimes. He also said virtually all of the weapons and bulldozers used against the Palestinians are American-made.

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat urgently called for the world to intercede and block the Israeli actions.

Earlier in the week, at least 120,000 Israelis attended a peace rally in Tel Aviv May 15 under the slogan, “Leave Gaza and start talking.” Rally speakers from widely different viewpoints called for a speedy exit from Gaza.

In a related development, United for Peace and Justice and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation have called for a national week of action June 1-5 to demand that the Washington end its military, economic, and diplomatic support for Israel’s illegal military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. For more information, visit www.unitedforpeace.org or the related website, www.endtheoccupation.org.

The author can be reached at malmberg@pww.org.