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Israelis bulldoze refugees’ homes

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RAFAH REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip — Israeli army bulldozers demolished homes and shops in a Palestinian refugee camp early Tuesday, triggering a two-hour battle with Palestinian gunmen and sending civilians running for cover, some still in their pajamas.

Five Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers were wounded.

Palestinians said it was the first major incursion into Palestinian territory since a U.S.-brokered truce was declared last month.

Israel denied the territory was Palestinian-controlled, saying it has security control over the part of the Rafah refugee camp where the homes were knocked down because it borders the Israeli-Egyptian border and is close to military installations.

Israeli army spokesman, Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, said 10 to 15 homes were demolished and that they were not inhabited. Rafowicz said the homes had been used as firing positions by Palestinian gunmen who targeted Israeli troops.

But Palestinian officials from the nearby town of Rafah said 26 homes, most of them one-story shacks, as well as 12 shops, were demolished in the Israeli raid, leaving 155 people homeless.

Rafah residents said they were woken by the sound of bulldozers at about 1 a.m.

Mohammed Abu Libdeh, an engineer, said he saw the bulldozers from his window, knocking down his neighbor's house.

He said he grabbed his wife and five children and ran to his parents' home which was a few yards farther away from the border. However, the bulldozers approached that house as well, and the family ran for cover again. Abu Libdeh said the Israeli troops withdrew at about 4 a.m.

"The only thing I have left is the red shirt I am wearing," Abu Libdeh said Tuesday morning, standing on the rubble of his two-story home, his 11-year-old son Salim by his side. "I spent all my savings to build this house."

Salim searched for remains of his computer in the debris, but could only find the keyboard, next to a broken TV screen and remains of a refrigerator.

The demolished homes covered an area several hundred yards square, and dozens of residents were trying to retrieve belongings after daybreak.

Fatmeh Radwan, 42, was tugging at a sack of white flour she had bought a day earlier with what she said were her last $15. However, the sack was stuck in the rubble, and the flour had already been dirtied by sand.

Radwan said she lost a four-room house she shared with her husband and nine children. She said she and her family fled in their pajamas, under fire.

"How can I convince my children not to join clashes while they face a dark future, and our small house has been destroyed," she said, crying.

During the demolition campaign, 22 hand grenades and two anti-tank grenades were hurled at Israeli soldiers, the army said. One of the army bulldozers was hit by an anti-tank grenade, and three soldiers were wounded, including one seriously.

At one point, Palestinian security forces joined the battle. In all, five Palestinians were wounded, including several gunmen.

Nighttime raids on Palestinian positions and neighborhoods in Gaza were frequent before the cease-fire, negotiated by CIA director George Tenet. Palestinian security commander Maj. Gen. Abdel Razek Majaida called the Israeli operation a "dangerous violation of the cease-fire."

In other developments Tuesday, a Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia met over the weekend with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Qureia relayed a message to Peres that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has reissued an order to Palestinian security forces to do everything they can to enforce the cease-fire, the official said.

Palestinian officials said Arafat spoke of making arrests and preventing militants from entering Israel, as part of implementing the cease-fire.

In a phone call late Monday to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called for "constant international pressure ... to bring about the end of Palestinian terror, violence and incitement," Sharon's office said.

Sharon is insisting on seven days of total calm before starting a process that is to lead to renewal of peace negotiations. U.S. diplomats say a "100 percent effort" by Arafat to stop the violence would be enough, but State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday, "Frankly, we're still looking for that."