JERUSALEM – Israeli (search) army bulldozers flattened 13 homes and the remains of a mosque in a frequently targeted Gaza Strip (search) refugee camp on the Egyptian border, Palestinian (search) witnesses said Tuesday.
The Israeli army had no comment on the raid in the Rafah camp. Israel has demolished hundreds of houses there during three years of fighting with the Palestinians, saying the buildings provide cover to gunmen and weapons smugglers.
The Palestinians say Israel is systematically clearing large swaths of land in the camp to distance the built-up areas from the narrow strip Israeli troops patrol along the Egyptian border.
In Tuesday's raid, three bulldozers and several tanks rumbled into the camp before dawn, and Israeli troops started shooting, witnesses said. Those in the targeted homes hastily gathered their belongings, with some raising white flags to avoid being hit by tank fire, witnesses said.
Resident Ashraf Omar, 32, said the mosque demolished Tuesday was damaged in previous raids. Israeli troops generally stay clear of Muslim holy sites in their raids.
The operation came a day after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told lawmakers that peace with Syria would require a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
Sharon's comments on Syria, made to parliament's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, were an unprecedented admission by the career hard-liner. In the past, right-wing Israeli governments insisted a peace deal could be reached without a withdrawal from the strategic plateau captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Sharon did not tell the closed-door meeting whether he was willing to pay what he defined as the price for peace. However, one committee member said it was clear from the context that Sharon is not ready to return the Golan in exchange for a peace deal.
Sharon's meeting with the parliamentary committee came at a sensitive time.
Israel is preparing to defend its West Bank security barrier next month before the world court in The Hague, Netherlands. The government also is considering how to react to offers by Syrian President Bashar Assad to restart peace talks, which broke down in 2000.
In an interview published Monday in the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Assad appeared pessimistic about the chances of talks with Sharon and said the Bush administration was not interested in sponsoring such talks.
"From the beginning and until this moment, the U.S. administration did not wish to throw itself into the peace process. As for Sharon ... it is hard for him to succeed on a peace platform," Assad said.
Assad has said talks must resume where they broke off under Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak. But Sharon wants to start from scratch, and he has demanded that Syria crack down on militant groups it is hosting before restarting negotiations.
Israeli officials believe Assad's offer is meant to deflect pressure from the United States, especially in light of America's presence in neighboring Iraq. Syria is on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, and Washington has threatened to impose sanctions against Syria for harboring anti-Israel militants.
But some Cabinet ministers say Israel should take Syria up on its offer.
Sharon was asked by a lawmaker Monday if now is a good time to renew talks with Syria, said Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin.
Gissin quoted Sharon as saying, "No one should have any illusions. The price of peace with Syria is leaving the Golan Heights."
Ran Cohen, a committee member from the left-wing Meretz Party, said Sharon suggested that such a pullback would be too much for Israel to bear.
"His main declaration was that he is not ready to withdraw from the Golan, even for peace with Syria," Cohen told The Associated Press. "He didn't agree to pay the price that President Assad asks to complete a peace treaty with Syria."
During Monday's meeting, Sharon also said he asked governmental committees to review aspects of the separation barrier, including possible route changes and ways to ease movement for Palestinians, a senior official said on condition of anonymity.
Israel says the 440-mile barrier, which is one-quarter built, protects against homicide bombers and other attackers.
But the barrier has severely disrupted the lives of tens of thousand of Palestinians, separating them from their farmland, jobs, hospitals and schools.
Any changes would be applied only to the existing structure, the official said. One of its most contentious elements -- a section extending 25 miles into the West Bank to enclose four Jewish settlements there -- is not yet built.