Israelis, Palestinians Disagree on Damage Done in Rafah Camp
By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 27, 2004; Page A11
GAZA CITY, May 26 -- After a week-long Israeli raid in the Rafah refugee camp, one of Israel's largest military operations since the Palestinian uprising began 3 1/2 years ago, Israeli, Palestinian and U.N. officials do not agree on how many residents were killed and how many homes destroyed.
Israeli army spokesmen and local health officials concurred that dozens of Palestinians had died during Operation Rainbow, which targeted Palestinian guerrillas in the refugee camp and tunnels used to smuggle weapons and other goods from nearby Egypt.
The Israeli army has reported 54 Palestinians killed in fighting during the operation. The military acknowledged that 14 of the dead were noncombatants but asserted that several of those were killed by Palestinian gunfire.
But at Najar Hospital in Rafah, which received the dead and injured, officials reported 62 dead, 25 of them under 18. Palestinian officials said few of the dead were gunmen.
The number of homes demolished is also in dispute.
The Israeli army reported 56 demolitions of structures in the refugee camp's Brazil and Tel Sultan neighborhoods, where the military operation was centered. The U.N. agency that serves Palestinian refugees, however, said 167 houses were "destroyed or rendered uninhabitable." And a committee of local people whose houses were destroyed has tallied more than 110 demolitions.
Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman, said Israel was only counting houses that were completely razed. "We don't keep track of partially demolished houses," Dallal said.
Dallal said the army assessed the extent of the damage by debriefing soldiers and examining satellite photos of the Rafah camp taken before and after Operation Rainbow. "There are always going to be conflicting figures," he said. "Our figure is an approximate estimation."
Peter Hansen, the commissioner general of the U.N. Refugee and Works Agency, said the agency's staff went house to house to examine the damage, tallying homes that either were destroyed or had lost walls or other structural elements that made them unlivable.
"We are on the ground, and we can count," Hansen said.
The 167 structures that the U.N. agency deemed uninhabitable had housed 379 families, or 2,066 individuals, Hansen said. The agency has counted 3,451 people made homeless by Israeli demolitions in Rafah since the beginning of May.
Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University political scientist, said the issue of how many houses have been demolished is so contentious because the scope of the campaign of demolitions in Rafah affects Israeli popular opinion. This, in turn, could change the course of Israeli military action in the Gaza Strip. The presence of Jewish settlers and Israeli troops in Gaza, controversial for decades, has been the subject of particularly intense debate since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed last year that they be withdrawn.
"Destruction at the level of 170 houses will remind people of bombing in World War II, the destruction of whole sections of cities," Ezrahi said. "That has a completely different impact" than the razing of a third that many homes, as reported by the military.
The disagreements came after a week in which Israeli and Palestinian officials repeatedly revised their accounts of what was happening in Rafah while Operation Rainbow was in progress.
Over the weekend, the army reported that only five houses had been demolished, but that did not jibe with television images of much wider destruction. On Sunday, the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, reported 12 demolitions -- still far below the number that residents and journalists reported. By Monday night, the army had put the number at 56.
"It takes time to exactly assess numbers," said Dallal, the army spokesman.
Similarly, after Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli tank and helicopter fire on May 19, Najar Hospital released figures saying seven children had been among the dead. It turned out later the number was four.
Ali Moussa, the hospital's director, said that initial miscounts were the result of confusion in the emergency room.
[Early Thursday, three Israeli tanks and a bulldozer destroyed three Palestinian houses outside the Gaza town of Deir el-Balah, witnesses and Palestinian security officials said, the Associated Press reported.]
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