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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 May, 2004, 13:54 GMT 14:54 UK
Israel's Gaza security dilemma

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC defence correspondent

The deaths of Palestinian civilians from Israeli gunfire on Wednesday has drawn international criticism and raised questions about how long the Israeli army's operation in Rafah can continue.

Israeli tanks in the Rafah refugee camp
Israel says tunnels from Rafah to Egypt are a threat to its security

A major incursion into Lebanon in April 1996 was effectively halted after Israeli artillery fire killed some 100 Lebanese civilians sheltering at a United Nations base.

All the signs are that the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, remains intent on pushing ahead with his Gaza withdrawal plan - providing of course, he can win approval for it from his own cabinet.

But as the current Israeli operation shows, critical security issues still need to be resolved.

Arms smuggling

Some military commanders fear that once they withdraw from Gaza, it will become a well-armed base from which Palestinian militants can launch attacks into Israel itself.

Operation Rainbow - the current incursion into Rafah - is intended to kill or capture Palestinian tunnelers who run the arms-smuggling operation into the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

Gaza Map

Some Israeli press reports suggest that a major arms shipment was being readied on the Egyptian side of the border, which included surface-to-air missiles.

Operation Rainbow was launched to disrupt this.

But it is hard to see how such an operation can have anything other than short-term benefits.

If the Gaza withdrawal does go ahead, Israel plans to retain a narrow strip of land for security purposes on the boundary between Gaza and Egypt.

In a narrow sense, this all may have a military logic.

But in broader terms, the Rafah operation has only increased Palestinian bitterness.

It has also provoked widespread international condemnation.

Wednesday's Palestinian deaths have also prompted strong criticism in Israel itself.

The liberal newspaper Haaretz has described the army's operations in Rafah as "clumsy".

And last week's Israeli losses have only strengthened the majority of the Israeli public who want to see a withdrawal from Gaza - and soon.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Susannah Price
"Scenes of bloodshed and panic in the streets of Rafah"



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