GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel's three-day military operation in a Gaza Strip (search) refugee camp has left about 400 Palestinian families homeless, local officials said Monday, as the interim Palestinian Cabinet prepared to meet in the West Bank.
The new Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia (search), has told the ruling Fatah party he wants to quit once the term of his temporary government expires because of sharp disagreements with Yasser Arafat (search) over the appointment of a security chief.
However, with the deadline three weeks off, there is still time to settle the differences, Palestinian officials said.
Israeli troops withdrew from the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza-Egypt border on Sunday, after a three-day operation the military said was aimed at finding and destroying weapons smuggling tunnels. Three tunnels were shut down.
The raid, the biggest in Gaza in six months, was accompanied by heavy fighting between soldiers and Palestinian gunmen. Eight Palestinians, including two children, were killed, and dozens were wounded.
Saed Zoarub, the mayor of the town of Rafah next to the camp, said Monday that between 100 and 120 houses were demolished and another 70 damaged, leaving about 400 families homeless.
The area targeted was the camp's Yabena neighborhood, next to the Gaza-Egypt border. Several of the houses were blown up, while the remainder were razed by army bulldozers. It was the largest-scale demolition in a single raid since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting three years ago.
Rafah has been repeatedly targeted by Israeli troops. In previous raids, a total of about 2,000 homes were demolished in the camp, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which cares for refugees.
In the entire strip, including Rafah, a total of 6,500 houses have been destroyed in Israeli raids, municipal and U.N. officials have said.
The Israeli military said it did not know how many houses were demolished in the latest Rafah raid, but that about 30 of the structures were uninhabited and used as cover by gunmen.
The military said that other houses were razed because they were sitting atop or near tunnels. Also, some structures were damaged in the fighting, the army said, noting that Palestinians fired grenades and anti-tank missiles and that soldiers returned fire.
Palestinians charged that Israel was trying to bury peace efforts with the Rafah raid.
"This is a classic war against the Palestinian people," Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said Sunday.
The raid was part of stepped-up military activity following an Oct. 3 homicide bombing that killed 20 Israelis in a restaurant in the port city of Haifa.
Military officials said Palestinians planned to use the tunnels to bring in more advanced weapons, like anti-aircraft missiles, that could have a strategic impact on the conflict.
The Palestinian prime minister, Qureia, meanwhile, said after days of bitter quarreling with Arafat that he would not continue in office after his Cabinet's term expires in three weeks. The Cabinet, appointed by Arafat a week ago as an interim government, was to meet Monday to discuss the Rafah raid.
The tension between Arafat and Qureia reflects disagreement over the amount of control Arafat would retain over Palestinian armed forces, as well as procedural and personal issues. Israel and the United States insist that Arafat hand over authority, charging that he is tainted by terrorism.
Palestinians deny that and note that Arafat is their elected president -- although the term he won in a 1996 vote has formally expired.
Speaking after a meeting of Fatah leaders, Qureia would say only that a new government would be formed in about three weeks "with a new prime minister, too."
If Qureia follows through with his threat to quit, he would be the second prime minister to give up the job amid disputes with Arafat in two months, casting doubt on whether Arafat is willing to give up enough power to allow any premier to succeed.
The office of prime minister was created earlier this year under pressure from the United States and Israel -- who sought to marginalize Arafat and create a new, more acceptable negotiating partner for Israel.
The United States had hoped the prime minister would implement the "road map" peace plan, which envisions an end to three years of Israeli-Palestinian violence and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.
But the first man Arafat appointed premier, Mahmoud Abbas, lasted only four months, resigning Sept. 6 after being caught between Israeli demands for a crackdown on militants and Arafat's refusal to give up power over security forces.