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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 May, 2004, 08:55 GMT 09:55 UK
What price Israeli security?
As the Israeli army pulls back from some parts of the Gaza town of Rafah, the BBC's Matthew Price in Jerusalem asks how successful the operation was in terms of finding Palestinian weapons and the means of producing and procuring them, as well as the broader goal of making Israel a safer place.

Does Israel care about the international condemnation it is facing over its military offensive in Gaza? This week I asked an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman that very question.

"We care very deeply," was the answer.

Israeli tank in Brazil neighbourhood of Rafah
Many Israelis feel the army operation in Gaza is necessary
"And the fact that despite the international condemnation we are still doing what we consider is necessary - shows how crucial we regard it as being for the lives of our civilians."

That is exactly what the Israeli army says it is doing in southern Gaza. Protecting the lives of Israelis.

Look at this comment from the Israeli Defence Forces' website:

"There is a direct correlation between the level of violence and terrorism and the ability to procure, produce and smuggle weapons."

So the army rolled into Rafah. To stop the smuggling. The production. The procurement.

Deadly fighting

Considering the devastating attacks carried out by Palestinian groups against Israeli citizens over the last few years, it's not a bad tactic.

Few among the population are actually involved in armed actions against Israel - the people of Rafah are already the poorest Palestinians in Gaza
In theory at least.

But Israel's incursion into Rafah has brought about some of the deadliest fighting for a while.

Dozens of Palestinians have been killed. Hundreds made homeless. Electricity, water, telephone connections into Rafah have all been disrupted.

Rafah is a town of 127,000 people. Israel laid siege to it, and then went in against the "enemy".

And then, on Wednesday, the Israeli army decided to fire tank shells towards a crowd of protestors. To disperse the crowd.

Eight people were killed.

Pretty crude crowd control from what is one of the world's most technologically advanced armies.

Many Israelis are horrified at the deaths. "A big mistake" one said. Others knew how it would play around the world. Badly.

But ask them if they condemn the action and there's a mixed response.

'Collective punishment'

Some say it's ridiculous that troops are even in Gaza, considering the prime minister's plans eventually to pull out. The army is risking the lives of soldiers for a strip of land Israel will one day leave.

Palestinian family in front of destroyed house
Rafah is becoming a more angry place as a result of the operation
Others say the army is trying to protect Israel. It's a difficult job, but it has to be done.

There have been protest marches in Israel against what is happening in Gaza. And one Israeli cabinet minister from the second largest party in the coalition government has said Israel's presence in the area is no longer viable.

For the Palestinians of Rafah what the army is doing is collective punishment. Few among the population are actually involved in armed actions against Israel. The people of Rafah are already the poorest Palestinians in Gaza.

Now Israel is - in the name of security - heaping more misery on them.

The army says - while the military operation goes on - it's doing its best to ease what aid groups refer to as a growing humanitarian crisis.

But Rafah doesn't see it that way.

Nor does the world. The UN, the EU, even Israel's chief ally the US have criticised the Gaza action.

No large hauls

In the face of this criticism, can Israel continue its military operation in Gaza?

Demonstrator at Israeli consulate in Los Angeles with poster of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
The incursions have prompted widespread international criticism
The short answer is "Yes". If it decides that for military reasons it is necessary.

Some commentators point out in the papers that the operation - despite assurances to the contrary by the army - appears to have been largely unsuccessful so far.

Just one smuggling tunnel is said to have been found. A handful of Palestinian militants have been "identified". There have been no large hauls of weapons caches.

There has been little gain, it seems, in return for an awful lot of death and destruction.

So if Israel is going to press on and complete its mission, many are wondering how many more will die? How long - the Palestinians ask - will the misery of life under siege in Rafah last?

This mission is supposed to make Israel a safer place.

We can only assume it is also making Rafah a more angry place. A more fertile breeding ground for militancy.

Some are now wondering whether that - in the long run - makes Israel a safer place.

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