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Israeli official criticized for allusion on Palestinian suffering

Notes kin's ordeal in World War II

JERUSALEM -- An Israeli Cabinet minister and Holocaust survivor caused an uproar yesterday when he said Israel's offensive in a Gaza refugee camp -- including TV images of displaced Palestinians searching the rubble for their meager belongings -- brought back memories of his family's suffering.

The comments by Justice Minister Yosef Lapid reflected a growing debate in Israel over the justification for a campaign that has left 41 Palestinians dead, reduced dozens of homes to rubble, drawn international condemnation, and yielded one arms-smuggling tunnel.

Afterward, Lapid insisted he was not likening the army's actions to Nazi policies, but was simply moved to remember his grandmother, who was killed by the Nazis. ''If I wanted to say Holocaust, I would have said Holocaust," Lapid told Israel Army Radio.

But his Cabinet colleagues were infuriated, saying the analogy was clear.

''The comparison, maybe hinted or even unintentional, between the systematic murder of the Jews by the Germans and the army's operations in Gaza . . . is not a legitimate analogy," Health Minister Dan Naveh told Army Radio.

The army says the six-day-old offensive, the biggest in Gaza in years, is crucial for stopping weapons smuggling between Egypt and Gaza's Rafah refugee camp.

Some critics said the offensive makes little sense from a military standpoint, however. Others questioned why Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approved it even though he is pushing for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

The outrage has focused on the home demolitions in Rafah, most along an Israeli military buffer road between Egypt and the camp. Since the outbreak of fighting in 2000, more than 11,000 Palestinians have been displaced by the house demolitions along the road, part of the military's attempt to widen it.

The army now says it wants to widen the road even further, to 300 yards along the 6-mile route, to make it harder to dig tunnels.

Military sources confirmed yesterday that the plan would require the demolition of some 700 to 2,000 Palestinian homes. Israel's attorney general has vetoed the idea.

The military says troops are demolishing only the houses used as cover by gunmen or smugglers.

In the past 10 days, dozens more homes have been razed or damaged, leaving 1,650 Palestinians without a roof over their heads, according to UN estimates.

During a Cabinet discussion yesterday, Lapid, leader of the centrist Shinui Party, called for a halt in the demolitions.

The 71-year-old justice minister said TV images from Rafah reminded him of the suffering of his own family.

''I am talking about an old woman on all fours looking for her medicine in the rubble of her home, and I thought about my grandmother," he told Army Radio.

A native of the former Yugoslavia, Lapid spent part of World War II in the Budapest ghetto and lost many relatives, including one grandmother and his father, in the Holocaust.

Lapid's criticism went well beyond the television images. The army's plan to widen the patrol road, at the cost of demolishing up to 2,000 more homes, ''makes me sick," Lapid said, adding that the international community will never let Israel carry out such an operation. ''We look like monsters in the eyes of the world," he said.

Lapid, perhaps Sharon's most important coalition partner, said he would not quit the government over the dispute.

In the Rafah camp yesterday, residents of a besieged neighborhood demanded that they be allowed to bury those killed last week. The bodies of 17 people have been kept in a makeshift morgue in a nearby town. Islam requires that bodies be buried as soon as possible.

Israel denied that residents are being prevented from burying their relatives. The army said it offered buses to bring the relatives to the morgue or the bodies back to the camp.

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