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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 May, 2004, 23:17 GMT 00:17 UK
Surveying the ruins of Rafah

By Alan Johnston
BBC correspondent in Gaza

A boy carries supplies of pasta through the wreckage of Rafah refugee camp
Multi-storey buildings are among those destroyed in the operation

The high-level United Nations delegation was making its way down one of Rafah's ruined streets.

Israeli tank tracks had churned the road into mounds of earth, and off to one side lay the wreckage of someone's home.

At the other end of the street sat an Israeli tank - squat and menacing - following the UN team's progress.

From perhaps a few blocks away came the sound of gunfire. Later Palestinian medical sources said that it had killed a three-year-old girl.

The Israeli army says it is investigating the reports.

For the chief of the UN's agency for Palestinian refugees, Peter Hansen, the shooting and the scrambling over the wreckage of the street was a taste of everyday life in Rafah's Brazeel neighbourhood.

He had just emerged from a house where a mother had told him how it was when the Israeli bulldozer began battering at the house next door.

A Palestinian family examine the remains of their home
One thing that strikes you is that so many people said they had their homes bulldozed while they were in the houses.
The UN's Peter Hansen
She was worried that her own house would come crashing down, as she tried to cram her children into a cupboard because she thought it might protect them.

Out on the street one of many men to beg Mr Hansen for help said: "We need a home. We don't know how we can wash our children. We are scattered. We are separated. Many families are separated."

He said that his mother's leg had been broken when their house was wrecked.

Mr Hansen said later: "One thing that strikes you is that so many people said they had their homes bulldozed while they were in the houses.

"I've heard the Israelis deny this, but to me it was quite striking the consistency of the reports that I was getting."

He was asked if the Israeli tactics amounted to collective punishment.

He answered that he had seen many people suffering who could not possibly be the gunmen the Israelis were hunting for in Rafah's alleyways.

He said that Rafah was in need of major humanitarian assistance.

"It was very moving to see a mother with a three-year-old child complaining - rightly so - that for 10 days she had not been able to wash her baby properly - and just being a mother in a terribly difficult situation.

A woman sits amid the rubble of her house in Rafah refugee camp
The UN's construction programme is being outpaced
"And having her husband - who had been injured as their house was broken down - starting to cry as we finished talking. Emotions are very raw."

Mr Hansen said that the UN was building homes, but that the construction programme was being outpaced by the Israeli army's rate of destruction.

The UN says that over the past two weeks 1,650 people have been made homeless in Rafah.

The army insists that the bulldozers move in for only two reasons.

Either the building was used to launch an attack on militants, or a tunnel was dug beneath it.

The tunnels run to Egyptian territory - just a few hundred metres away. According to the army, militants use them to smuggle in weapons.

Israel worries that organisations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad will one day bring through the tunnels heavy weapons that they will use to target towns and cities in Israel.

Mr Hansen conceded that Israel had real security concerns. But he made clear that he doubted that the razing of large numbers of homes was the way to tackle the problem.


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