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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 May, 2004, 16:46 GMT 17:46 UK
Political stakes are raised in Gaza

By Matthew Price
BBC correspondent in Jerusalem

I was once driven down the Philadelphi Road in an Israeli army humvee. We bounced along, hitting pot holes, riding over bumps.

Woman amongst the ruins in Gaza
Thousands have lost their homes in Gaza in the last three years

The Philadelphi Road is not really a road at all. It is a no-man's land - a wasteland between the Egyptian border and the Palestinian homes of southern Gaza.

Once, those homes ran right along the border. A Palestinian friend of mine says he used to play football there when he was young, and when the ball bounced across into Egypt he would run after it.

Now, if he did that he would be shot.

Wasteland

Over the last three years of the Palestinian uprising, the Israeli army has destroyed many of the houses that run along the border, creating this wasteland.

They do this for "security reasons", destroying the buildings which Palestinian gunmen use as hiding places, and those houses which hide the entrance to a tunnel used to smuggle weapons from Egypt.

Last week, the Israeli army bulldozed more than 70 homes in the southern Gaza Strip during intense fighting there. Seven soldiers were killed.

More than 1,000 people are thought to have been made homeless. Many are now living in tents.

After the Israeli Supreme Court ruling that the army was allowed to destroy homes in self-defence, the army chief of staff spoke of plans to demolish "hundreds" more Palestinian homes.

It's a pretty radical step, especially bearing in mind the likely international outcry if Israel goes through with it.

And it also appears hard to square with the voices coming out of Tel Aviv on Saturday night.

Then, more than 100,000 people at a rally demanded two things of their prime minister.

Leave Gaza, as you plan to do, and start negotiating with the Palestinians again, they told Ariel Sharon.

One event is driving both of these positions - the deaths of 13 Israeli soldiers serving in Gaza.

The army is smarting from its worst week in two years, and wants to make sure no more soldiers lose their lives.

The Israeli population is beginning to fear more soldiers could be killed if they don't leave Gaza.

And then there's the international community which is pushing Ariel Sharon to carry out his Gaza withdrawal plan.

Gaza plan

So what does all this mean for that plan?

Well, conceivably the army is preparing for a pull-out, which the prime minister may yet demand. It will argue that militarily it needs to widen the Philadelphi Road in order to keep weapons out of Gaza after any such withdrawal.

There is also a head of steam building up among the general population for a Gaza pull-out.

Ariel Sharon says he is determined to push ahead with the withdrawal plan - but with modifications, in order to address the concerns of critics.

And the word "modification" is crucial. We will find out in the coming weeks exactly what the prime minister proposes to do - how far he proposes to go.

Perhaps Mr Sharon will water down his plan for full withdrawal. Perhaps he will only leave some parts of Gaza.

For now the process is in limbo.




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