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Middle East: U.S. Sends Mixed Messages As Israel Intensifies Gaza Raids

First, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned Israel that the United States opposes the destruction of Palestinian homes. Then, a few days later, President George W. Bush softened the message, emphasizing Israel's right to self-defense as it continues a deadly operation in Gaza it says is targeted at stopping the smuggling of arms.

Prague, 19 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Where exactly does Washington stand on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

On 16 May, Secretary of State Powell came out forcefully against the planned destruction of Palestinian homes in a raid in Gaza that Israel said was needed to destroy a militant arms-smuggling operation.

Speaking in Jordan alongside King Abdullah, Powell did not mince words: "We oppose the destruction of homes. We don't think that is productive. We know that Israel has a right for self-defense. But the kind of actions they are taking in Rafah with the destruction of Palestinian homes, we oppose."

Yet those strong words -- conveyed amid rising Arab animosity toward the United States -- appear to have been contradicted just two days later by President Bush.

After Israel defied Powell's warning and launched a raid in Gaza on 18 May that killed 19 Palestinians -- both militants and civilians -- Bush told a pro-Israel lobbying group, "The United States is strongly committed -- and I am strongly committed -- to the security of Israel as a vibrant Jewish state. Israel is a democracy and a friend and has every right to defend itself from terror."

As Israel continued its Gaza operation today, witnesses said an Israeli helicopter fired a missile into a crowd in the Rafah refugee camp, killing at least 10 Palestinians and wounding 40. The strike reportedly hit a protest march heading toward a part of the camp besieged by Israeli forces.
"Statements that confuse [are] received around here very negatively." -- Nizar Hamzeh, a professor of politics at the American University in Beirut

Israel says the Gaza raid yesterday, which was condemned by the European Union and United Nations, is aimed not at destroying Palestinian homes but at a series of tunnels used by militants to smuggle arms from Egypt.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Gideon Meir defended the actions Israel is taking against the arms smuggling. Speaking today in Jerusalem, Meir said: "What we are witnessing is terrorist organizations, who are using the civilian population and their houses in order to produce explosives, to use their houses for snipers and to use the houses at the end of tunnels, where they are smuggling the weapons into the Gaza Strip. The more weapons there will be in the Gaza Strip, the less the chances are for us to engage in a peace process with the Palestinians."

But the operation -- Israel's most serious in Gaza since the 1967 Middle East war -- has left more than 1,500 Palestinians homeless and prompted Arab nations to introduce a UN Security Council resolution demanding that Israel stop the demolition of homes in the Rafah refugee camp.

The United States has proposed major amendments aimed at what it calls balancing the Security Council resolution.

Bush sought to qualify his remarks about Israel's right to self-defense by calling Israel's raid "troubling." State Department officials also expressed concern that, despite assurances, Israel was not taking enough care to avoid damage to civilian homes.

But analysts say such qualifiers do little to alter the common Arab perception that the Bush administration's criticism of Israel and its recent courting of Arab public opinion are not entirely sincere.

For his part, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah is skipping an Arab League summit this week to protest U.S. policies on Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Following a series of setbacks in the region, including a scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, the Bush administration has launched a diplomatic offensive to improve America's international reputation -- an image that Powell likened to having a "black eye around the world."

But Nizar Hamzeh, a professor of politics at the American University in Beirut, said Bush's remarks may confirm what many Arabs suspected about the recent diplomatic push in the region by Washington -- that it had more to do with public relations than foreign policy.

"The confusion...[adds] to the fuel of hatred [toward] the United States in this part of the world. This doesn't suggest, in another dimension, that this should be the case," Hamzeh said. "But statements that confuse [are] received around here very negatively."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the Gaza raid after 13 Israeli soldiers were killed there last week. Militants celebrated by displaying the bodies of the soldiers on Arab television.

Analysts say the raid is part of a tactic by Sharon to win support from his Likud Party for a plan to withdraw Israeli forces and settlements from Gaza. Likud has so far rejected that plan, despite support from the United States and most Israelis.

Violence has worsened in Gaza since Sharon proposed the plan in late April. Militant groups want to claim as a victory any pullout by Israel from territories it captured in the 1967 war.