11 September 2001>News Stories>Israel Wrecks Gaza Houses, Plans Settlement Homes

Israel Wrecks Gaza Houses, Plans Settlement Homes
Palestinians Decry 'Flagrant Challenge' to U.S.

BBCNews . 20 November

GAZA, Nov 20—Israel said Tuesday it would build new homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron, a day after the United States announced a new Middle East peace drive.

Israel also said it would replace mobile homes in the Jewish settlement in divided Hebron with concrete houses, despite U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's call to halt settlement construction amid nearly 14 months of violence.

Palestinians condemned the Israeli decision as "irresponsible" and a "flagrant challenge to the American administration."

Powell set out U.S. Middle East policy in a speech on Monday at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He said two mediators would be sent to the region and repeated calls for a two-state solution and for Palestinians to end violence.

The speech marked the first time President George W. Bush's administration has outlined ideas for ending the 53-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The move coincided with U.S. efforts to bolster Arab backing for the anti-terror war in Afghanistan.

Bulldozers Came at Night
Three Palestinians were wounded in the fresh violence in Gaza, hospital officials said, underlining the difficulties U.S. envoys will face when they arrive in the coming days to prod peace moves forward.

In the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza, Palestinian witnesses said tanks and bulldozers rumbled into a Palestinian-ruled area under cover of darkness and wrecked 18 houses, leaving families homeless during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The army said it destroyed two uninhabited homes and denied the area is under Palestinian control. Reuters television footage showed Palestinians sifting through the rubble to pick out their belongings.

The military said the raid came after Palestinian gunmen continuously fired on soldiers in the area and threw grenades at nearby outposts.

Omar Abu Shaweesh, a father of six who lives in Rafah, said the Israeli bulldozers moved in without warning giving him no time to remove valuables.

"We were asleep when they came. We started to run, taking the children out. We were confused. We didn't know what to do but to run," Abu Shaweesh told Reuters.

"If the world is looking for an identification for terrorism it's (Israeli Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon and if they are looking for a manifestation for destruction they should come here," he said.

At least 710 Palestinians and 188 Israelis have been killed since a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted in September 2000 after peace talks stalled.

Settlement Construction
Yarden Vatikay, a spokesman for Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, said the mobile homes in Hebron were being replaced because they had become unsafe since the Palestinian uprising flared.

Israeli troops guarding the settlement in the divided West Bank city and Palestinian gunmen often exchange fire and people on both sides have been killed or wounded in the fighting.

"There is no political issue here, it is a security issue," Vatikay told Reuters.

He did not know how many mobile homes would be replaced or if the construction had begun. But the liberal Ha'aretz newspaper reported 12 caravans were being replaced with permanent homes in the Tel Rumeida settlement.

Under international law Jewish settlements, built on land Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war that Palestinians want for an independent state, are illegal.

"Security, stability and ceasefire cannot be sustained while this creeping cancerous settlement is continuing," Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, a senior aide to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, told Reuters.

Vatikay said Israel was taking similar steps in the Gaza Strip, where it was replacing metal classrooms and homes with concrete ones that can better withstand gunfire and mortar bomb attack.

Peace, Prosperity, Tolerance
In his much-awaited policy statement, Powell set out a vision of peace, prosperity and tolerance in the Middle East and asked Israelis and Palestinians to help make it a reality.

Answering criticism that the Bush administration has kept its distance from Middle East diplomacy, Powell said the United States was ready to take the lead in helping Israelis and Palestinians reach a lasting peace.

Powell said Bush had asked Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns to return to the Middle East later this week for consultations.

Retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, will also go to the region and stay "as long as it takes" to push the sides towards a ceasefire and on to the road to resuming peace talks, he said.

Both sides welcomed the U.S. diplomatic effort, based on a truce-to-talks plan drawn up by an international panel.