Army bulldozers flatten dozens of refugee homes close to Jewish settlement

Saturday, September 25th 2004, 11:01 am

By: News On 6

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ A day after a mortar round killed an Israeli-American woman in a nearby settlement, the Israeli army charged into a Palestinian refugee camp Saturday, killing one person and tearing down 35 homes, witnesses and a U.N. aid official said.

A 55-year-old Palestinian man died in missile strikes that started the incursion into Khan Younis, hospital official said. Palestinian gunmen fired on the army bulldozers and tanks as they moved in, and one resident said people whose homes were being destroyed fled in their pajamas.

The military said troops destroyed several uninhabited structures that had provided cover for militants shelling the nearby settlement.

Khan Younis is close to the Israeli settlement of Neve Dekalim, the target of a Hamas mortar attack on Friday. That attack killed 24-year-old Tiferet Tratner, who had dual Israeli-American citizenship, settlement officials said.

The raid Saturday came on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, when observant Jews pray, fast and ask for forgiveness. Israel shut down for the fast, closing its borders, and streets were deserted. Armed guards were posted at synagogues and soldiers enforced a blanket closure of the West Bank and Gaza.

In Khan Younis, residents emerged from their homes after daybreak Saturday to inspect the destruction.

Municipal officials said 20 homes closest to Neve Dekalim had been destroyed. However, an official with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency later said on condition of anonymity that 35 houses had been razed.

Fathi Zaroub, a father of four, said he lost his two-room house.

``We were forced to leave the house under intensive shooting from the sky and from the tanks,'' Zaroub said by telephone from the camp. ``We took nothing from our belongings. We ran away in our pajamas, and we have no other refuge ... I don't know where I am going to take my children.''

Zaroub said the homes of most of his relatives had also been destroyed.

Associated Press Television News footage showed dozens of Palestinians sifting through the rubble of their demolished homes, collecting clothes, kitchen utensils, school books and mattresses, trying to salvage what remained of their belongings.

Thousands of Palestinians have been made homeless by Israeli house demolitions in Gaza in the past four years of fighting, and the tactic has been widely condemned outside Israeli. Normally, they stay with relatives. If they are refugees, a U.N. agency sets up temporary shelter.

The incursion started around 1 a.m. The army said a helicopter fired two missiles at four men trying to launch a rocket or rocket-propelled grenade. Palestinians said the missiles hit as onlookers rushed into the street to watch an Israeli armored convoy.

After the missile strike, 14 tanks and three bulldozers moved into the camp and began destroying houses. Dozens of Palestinian gunmen exchanged fire with troops.

Both Israel and the Palestinians have intensified fighting in Gaza. Israel is planning to withdraw in 2005, and Palestinian militants want to portray that move as a hasty retreat under fire.

The deadly mortar attack Friday marked the first time a resident of a Jewish settlement in Gaza was killed in Palestinian shelling, and was expected to mobilize further opposition to Sharon's withdrawal plan.

Neve Dekalim is one of 21 Gaza settlements, with a total of 8,200 residents, to be dismantled under Sharon's ``unilateral disengagement'' plan.

Sharon has said he believes Israel's presence in Gaza is untenable. He said evacuating the Gaza settlements and four isolated West Bank enclaves is a way of strengthening Israel's hold on parts of the West Bank where most of its 236,000 settlers live.

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