MARGARET WARNER: James Bennet, welcome. I understand you're in Gaza right now, and this has been described as the most intense Israeli operation in Gaza in years. How close have you been able to get to the fighting? Tell us about it.
JAMES BENNET: Well, I'm sort of on the margins of the area where the fighting is going on right now. It's nighttime here, of course, and the Israelis are firing off battlefield flares to illuminate the area, and there are blasts of machine gun fire. But I have not been able to get much closer than that. It's an extremely unsafe environment. And unfortunately, we're in the kind of situation we've seen before, with these sorts of incursions into refugee camps in the west bank, as well as in Gaza, which is, there's a lot of activity in a very confined, very congested space, and sharply different claims being made by the two sides about what's happening.
MARGARET WARNER: Tell us about Rafah. Who lives there? How big is it? Is it a hotbed of militants, as the Israelis are saying?
JAMES BENNET: Well, Rafah is a Palestinian refugee camp. It kind of conjures the wrong image to say "camp" because it's actually more like a town that was established in 1949 for refugees of the 1948 Arab/Israeli War. And there are now more than 90,000 people living in Rafah. And it's kind of a ramshackle aggregate of cinder block homes with corrugated metal roofs that are held down with cinder blocks -- very, very simple homes for very poor people. It's administered by a U.N. agency that was set up to care for Palestinian refugees.
MARGARET WARNER: And are the Israelis correct that there are these tunnels built from the basements of some of these buildings into Egypt and are used for smuggling?
JAMES BENNET: Yes. The tunnels definitely do exist, and this area has been a flash point of the conflict for three years partly because of those tunnels. It's partly a criminal network. These tunnels were dug partly to bring contraband in, even things like cigarettes and, I'm told, even women, at one point. The Israelis say they've been increasingly used to bring in weapons, including explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, and ammunition, which sells for a pretty high price in Gaza compared to what, let's say, a bullet would fetch in Israel. The tunnel diggers have gotten more and more sophisticated. The Israelis now say that some of these tunnels are as deep as 90 to 100 feet underground and almost 1,000 feet long. And there's a very strange cat- and-mouse game that's played along the border here. The Israelis go up and down the border with a gigantic drill, digging into the sand. The drill senses a vacuum when it hits one, which signifies a tunnel. They then lower explosives into the hole and blow it up.
MARGARET WARNER: Why are the Israelis launching such an aggressive attack now?
JAMES BENNET: Well, last week, during one of these operations to destroy one of these tunnels, a Palestinian militant hit an Israeli armored vehicle that was packed with hundreds of pounds of explosives, detonating it and killing the five soldiers aboard. It was the second successful Palestinian attack on an Israeli armored vehicle in the Gaza strip in two days, and Israelis were demanding some kind of response. In addition, the Israelis say, they're simply fed up with these smuggling tunnels, and they're intent on doing something about it. You can't also ignore the larger political context here. I mean, Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, is attempting to do this very daring unilateral disengagement plan, as he calls it, from the Palestinians, which includes an evacuation, eventually, of the Gaza strip. It's very important to him that this withdrawal, if it takes place, not be perceived as a victory for the Palestinian militants, who are just as determined that it be seen as a defeat for the Israelis.
MARGARET WARNER: And yet these demolitions have, as you suggested, been going on for quite some time, have they not, all along this sort of corridor between Rafah and Egypt?
JAMES BENNET: That's correct. They've been going on for three years now. The Israelis have steadily widened the so-called pink zone, which is the strip of land that they control along the border with Egypt. There has been considerable combat along that strip of land. The pace of demolition has noticeably picked up in the first months of this year, though. And particularly in early may, we've seen a lot of destruction in that area.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, how far is Israel intending to go with this?
JAMES BENNET: I've talked to Israeli officials who've talked about possibly doubling the size of this Israeli-controlled zone. It's now, in some areas, about 250 yards wide; talked about doubling that, which could mean the destruction... the Israelis acknowledge that could mean the destruction of hundreds, potentially, of Palestinian buildings. The Israelis say that many of those buildings are uninhabited. They say that they're used by militants to launch attacks on Israelis. Much of the destruction in the last few days, the Israelis say, has been of houses that were used for just that purpose. There have been more than 80 houses, I guess, destroyed in the last four or five days here.
MARGARET WARNER: And yet the U.N. is saying that lots of ordinary Palestinians, too, have been made homeless. How big a number is that, and what's being done for them?
JAMES BENNET: Well, there have been thousands and thousands of Palestinians that have been left homeless over the course of the conflict here, and more than a thousand, according to the U.N., in just the last few days from Rafah. And yes, we've seen a lot of ordinary Palestinians putting their belongings on their back and getting out of their houses, either abandoning their houses just ahead of the fighting, or picking through the rubble to salvage what belongings they could get. And the U.N. has been offering them some assistance to try to rent places. Many people have been moving in with their relatives. Some have been fleeing in hopes of being able to return after the fighting subsides.
MARGARET WARNER: And finally, what is the status of Sharon's proposal to withdraw from Gaza, which, as we know, was rejected by the Likud voters a couple weeks ago?
JAMES BENNET: It's in something of a state of limbo right now. Ariel Sharon says he's amending the plan, coming up with this slightly different version of it. And he says he's also mending his own ways and trying to generate political... more political support for it. So, he's been meeting one-on-one with some of the holdouts in his own government, trying to line up their support. Having failed within his own faction, he seems to now be going the route of trying to line up his government behind it. He's got a fairly right-leaning, even far right-leaning coalition, right now, and the club he's holding over their head is that, if they don't go along with him, he'll turn to the leftist center Labor Party and bring them into the government instead and push the plan ahead that way. So, he's letting it be known that he's not abandoning this, that he's quite determined to go ahead with it.
MARGARET WARNER: James Bennet, thanks so much.
JAMES BENNET: Thank you.