Israel on Wednesday was under mounting pressure from the United States and other countries to halt its policy of demolishing Palestinian homes, as continued fighting dashed hopes that a four-week-old truce would hold.
The United States on Tuesday called for an immediate halt to the Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes, condemning the practice as "highly provocative" and a blow to the fragile truce.
"Actions such as these demolitions are highly provocative, they undermine confidence and trust between the parties," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, cited by AFP.
"They can only make it much more difficult to restore calm."
Boucher said US officials had been in touch with the Israeli government at the highest levels to urge an "immediate halt to any further demolition of Palestinian homes and destruction of Palestinian property."
The US condemnation came after Israeli forces early Tuesday bulldozed homes in a refugee camp in Rafah near the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt.
Israeli armored vehicles and bulldozers pushed 100 meters (yards) inside the refugee camp, which is under full Palestinian security and civil control, and tore down 18 houses and six shops.
The Israeli army said it demolished the unoccupied buildings because they were being used as cover for attacks against military posts, according to Haaretz newspaper.
Outraged Palestinians and Israeli troops engaged in hours of gunbattles following the operation. Eleven Palestinians were injured, one seriously, Al Jazeera satellite TV channel. Three Israeli soldiers were also wounded.
On Monday, Israel destroyed 14 homes in an overcrowded refugee camp in occupied east Jerusalem, claiming they had been built illegally. Palestinians, however, say it is nearly impossible to obtain building permits from Israeli occupation authorities.
The bulldozing further dented hopes for a week-long "cooling off" period, which Israel insists on before implementing measures under the peace plan recommended by a commission chaired by former US senator George Mitchell.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat denounced the bulldozing of the houses in Rafah as a "crime," said the Palestinian news agency, WAFA.
"We will seek Arab and international efforts to stop these crimes," he told reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, returning from Amman where he met King Abdullah.
Britain also said it was "deeply concerned" over the demolitions, with Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, saying "there is a clear risk that such actions could inflame an already volatile situation," said AFP.
The demolitions prompted the Palestinian Legislative Council to call on foreign parliaments to put an end to "the Israeli leadership's policy of threats against the Palestinian people, the [Palestinian]Authority and its leader Yasser Arafat."
For its part, the European Union issued a statement calling upon the Israeli authorities to "put an immediate end to such activities" which risked complicating international efforts to breath new life into the Middle East peace process.
Late Tuesday, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told public television "Arafat 'wants to stop terrorism' because he is in a desperate situation," according to Haaretz.
He had said Arafat had pledged that his authority would start taking action to prevent attacks, after Peres reportedly met secretly Sunday with Palestinian parliamentary chief Ahmed Qorei (Abu Ala).
When asked about Israeli threats against the Palestinian president reported by the Israeli press, Peres warned: "If we attempt to delegitimize Yasser Arafat, half of the countries in the world would blindly support him."
The Mitchell plan was hailed by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as the "central instrument" towards reaching peace in the Middle East.
In Paris, the French government said it was "convinced that an impartial mechanism of international monitoring (of the ceasefire) between Israelis and Palestinians would be necessary."
Meanwhile, Israel stepped up security at its international airport because of fears of a possible car bomb attack there, causing large traffic tailbacks for the second day running.
The Islamic movement Hamas earlier warned it had suicide bombers ready to attack to avenge the shooting death of a Palestinian boy at the weekend.
As the escalation continued, Boucher said the United States was sending a new envoy to the region to push peace efforts.
AFP said that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Satterfield would travel to the region this week, to follow up on discussions held two weeks ago by Secretary of State Colin Powell and other US envoys.
Since the outbreak of the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict last September, CNN reports that Palestinians have killed over 112 Israelis with weapons ranging from stones and knives to machineguns and car bombs. Israeli military sources have reported well over 600 injuries to Israelis of Jewish descent.
In the same time period, according to CNN, Israeli soldiers and armed Jewish settlers have killed 13 Arab Israelis and over 458 Palestinians with weapons ranging from machineguns and tanks to US-made Apache helicopter gunships and F-16s.
According to Amnesty International, nearly 100 of the Palestinians killed were children.
In addition, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society has reported over 14,000 Palestinians wounded, and over 520 killed.
Jewish author Noam Chomsky, who according to a New York Times Book Review article is “arguably the most important intellectual alive,” has been quoted as saying: “State terrorism is an extreme form of terrorism, generally much worse than individual terrorism because it has the resources of a state behind it.” – Albawaba.com
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