JERUSALEM, SEPT. 25 -- A major crackdown by the Israeli army against residents of a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip following the killing of a soldier there has recalled Israel's attention to the Palestinian uprising and undermined an incipient liberalization of military rule in the occupied territories.
Army lawyers won approval from Israel's Supreme Court today to demolish more than 30 houses and shops in Gaza's Bureij refugee camp. At least 15 houses and stores and a gas station were demolished last night before the court temporarily halted the action. Israeli radio said the army resumed the destruction tonight.
Defense Ministry officials said they were also considering deporting several Palestinians from Bureij, and were keeping the camp under curfew for a sixth day while they searched for suspects. Palestinian reports said dozens of people already had been arrested, and hundreds of young men were in hiding.
The military measures represent the most severe punishment imposed by Israel on a Palestinian community in more than two years, and, in the view of some analysts, could reawaken U.S. and international criticism of Israel's handling of the intifada. The Arab rebellion against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is now in its 34th month. In the past, the Bush administration has reacted strongly to Israel's expulsion of Palestinians from the territories, and none have been ordered in the last 15 months.
Despite the potential scale of the retaliation, however, government spokesmen predicted today that Israel would avoid strong international criticism, in part because world attention is focused on the Persian Gulf crisis.
The crackdown followed an incident Thursday in which an Israeli reserve soldier was attacked, stoned and burned to death by a crowd of Palestinians in Bureij after he drove into the camp by mistake. Witnesses said that the soldier, Sgt. Amnon Pomerantz, 46, rammed his car into a cart and injured two boys while trying to leave the camp, turning an attack on his car by a few stone throwers into a mass assault.
Sources close to Defense Minister Moshe Arens argued that an exceptional response to the killing was necessary because of the extreme violence of the attack and the mass participation of Bureij residents. In court today, the army also said that the demolition of houses and shops was not punitive, but part of an operation to widen a main road through Bureij for security reasons.
Army officials said they would compensate owners of the structures destroyed, provided they were not suspected of involvement in the killing of the soldier.
Several independent political analysts said Arens may have been pressed into action by ultra-nationalist ministers of the three-month-old right-wing government, who have publicly demanded draconian measures against the camp. Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan, for example, has said the army should level all houses and shops within a 200-yard radius of the site of the killing and expel 100 young men.
Several Israeli human rights leaders and journalists compared the killing of the soldier and the government's reaction to an incident Aug. 7, in which a rioting crowd of Israelis in West Jerusalem stoned to death an Arab driver in his car. They said Israeli politicians were slow to condemn that killing or to call for action, and noted that police later arrested only one person in the case, a woman who was charged with the lesser offense of "endangering life."
"The two incidents are so similar that it hurts. . . . In both these horrifying cases, the victims stood alone and helpless against a crowd blinded by hate," journalist Uzi Benziman wrote in Haaretz. "It's important to remember that the Jews on Hebron road acted with no less savagery than the Arabs in the Bureij camp."
Whatever the army's motives in the Gaza incident, its action appears likely to undercut an initiative by the new government to relax tensions in the occupied territories and improve its image among both Palestinians weary of conflict and Western governments. The policy has involved a lessening of army patrols, a tightening of orders on when troops can shoot, and a relaxation of some of the tight administrative controls on Palestinian businesses and daily life.
Over the last three months, the policy appeared to pay off in a dramatic drop in deaths in clashes between the army and Palestinians, as well as a lowering of the uprising's profile as a political issue here and abroad. Still, the architects of the initiative in Arens's Defense Ministry had long been concerned that one major incident of violence could disrupt the policy by creating pressure for a new crackdown.
The initial wave of demolitions in Bureij was halted Monday by the Supreme Court after a petition by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a private human rights group. However, the Supreme Court in the past has definitively blocked only one of the more than 300 house demolitions ordered by the Army.
Avi Pazner, a senior aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, defended Israel's handling of the incident today, saying: "Five days have already passed since this horrible murder, and we have not taken any hasty action and we have not let the cries for revenge hasten our judgment. We are moving slowly and strictly within the framework of our legal system."
Journalists have not been allowed inside Bureij since the killing last Thursday.