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Middle East: Security Council Calls For Halt To Israeli Demolitions In Gaza

United Nations, 20 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The UN Security Council has condemned the killing of Palestinian civilians near a Gaza refugee camp and called on Israel to halt the demolition of Palestinian homes.

The Security Council late yesterday approved a resolution 14-0, with the United States abstaining, that calls on Israel to abide by its responsibilities under international law to protect civilians.

The United States, Israel's main ally, has in the past vetoed resolutions critical of Israel. But the decision to abstain reflects Washington's mounting concern about Israeli actions in Gaza.

The deputy U.S. ambassador to the UN, James Cunningham, said the United States respects Israel's right to self-defense but that its actions have been excessive.

"We do not see that [Israel's] operations in Gaza in the last few days serve the purposes of peace and security. They have worsened the humanitarian situation and resulted in confrontations between Israeli forces and Palestinians and have not, we believe, enhanced Israel's security," Cunningham said.

Cunningham urged Israeli restraint and said Washington plans immediate consultations with Israel, Palestinian officials, and Egyptian officials about combating smuggling into Gaza.

Israel has justified its incursion into the Rafah refugee camp near the Egyptian border as a defense against a massive smuggling operation. Israeli forces are continuing their offensive in the Rafah refugee camp. Palestinian security officials and witnesses say three Palestinians were killed today in an Israeli missile strike. The army said it had targeted gunmen approaching Israeli forces. Local doctors said two Palestinians were killed hours later by Israeli tank fire.
"The southern city of Rafah serves as the arms smuggling gateway of the Palestinian Authority and the main pipeline of transporting weapons and ammunition to Gaza." -- Dan Gillerman, Israel's UN ambassador

Among the confrontations yesterday, Israeli forces fired missiles and tank shells at a group of demonstrators, killing 10 Palestinians -- many of them children and teenagers.

Israeli officials apologized for the killing of the demonstrators, but they said the overall offensive is justified to cut off an arms smuggling route for terrorists.

Israel's UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, told the Security Council its resolution will not serve the cause of peace because it ignores the Palestinian leadership's support for terrorism against Israel.

"Today, Israel stands at the gates of hell in the Gaza Strip. The southern city of Rafah serves as the arms smuggling gateway of the Palestinian Authority and the main pipeline of transporting weapons and ammunition to Gaza," Gillerman said.

Gillerman said that since April, Israeli forces have discovered eight tunnels used for smuggling weapons near Rafah. Since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000, he said, 90 such tunnels have been found.

Gillerman said the tunnels from Egypt have been used by Iranian-backed Hizbullah and Palestinian organizations such as Hamas.

Gillerman's accusations drew a strong denial from Egypt's UN ambassador, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, in comments later to reporters.

"I wonder how one would believe such accusations that Iran is using Egyptian territory. That is a fallacy, and I fully reject it," Gillerman said.

Palestinian UN envoy Nasser al-Kidwa told the Security Council that Israeli actions in Rafah are part of a plan to isolate the Gaza Strip from the outside world and are creating a prison for its 1.3 million inhabitants.

"This is terrorism. This is state terrorism. These are war crimes for which the perpetrators must be held accountable under international law," al-Kidwa said.

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said recent reports from UN agencies found that nearly 2,200 people lost their homes in the first 15 days of May due to Israeli actions.

The Security Council resolution expresses "grave concern" at the humanitarian situation in Rafah and calls for emergency assistance for Palestinians there. It calls on Israel, as the occupying power, to closely follow its legal obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention to protect citizens in time of war.