The army said it would demolish hundreds of additional homes in the next few days, apparently as a retaliation and collective punishment for the death of seven Israeli soldiers over the weekend in a battle with Palestinian resistance fighters in the area.
According to Israeli press sources, the Israeli government has already given the army the go-ahead to widen the so-called "Philadelphia Route" along the Egyptian borders with Gaza to hundreds of metres.
The operation, which coincides with the 56th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, or national catastrophe, is expected to render thousands of men, women and children homeless, many for the second or third time.
Local officials in Rafah described the "wanton and wholesale destruction" of their neighbourhoods as "a colossal Gestapo-like crime".
"I want the world to see Nazism in action. I don't see any difference between German Nazism and Jewish Nazism. When will the world calls the spade a spade?" said Amjad Zurub, a local official in Rafah.
He castigated the international community for "playing deaf and dumb" in the face of this "holocaust against a defenceless civilian population".
A tank thunders towards a home
A woman who was carrying her baby and fleeing her home, which was being pulverized by a huge Israeli bulldozer, cursed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President George Bush, and Arab leaders.
"O God, show us your justice in Sharon, Bush and Arab rulers who have betrayed us and let the Jews slaughter us and destroy our homes," the unidentified and nearly distraught woman said.
Scenes of fleeing women and children, some carrying and comforting younger children, were ubiquitous in Rafah throughout Friday and early Saturday.
Panic-stricken children and women grabbed whatever belongings they could carry and fled as Israeli bulldozers began destroying their homes.
In some cases, Israeli bulldozers destroyed homes on top of occupants, killing at least three people.
Palestinian medics and rescuers reportedly recovered at least two bodies from under the rubble of one home.
Crime is 'clear'
The Palestinian Authority and the Israeli peace movement have condemned the demolitions as "war crimes".
Palestinians try to salvage as
much as they can
"It is manifestly clear that we are talking about a war crime …
without ifs or buts," said Hanna Isa, deputy-director of the Palestinian Ministry of Justice and professor of international law.
"Israel is flying in the face of the fourth Geneva Convention and article-8 of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
"Those who carry out these crimes and those who instructed them to do so, including Israeli government officials, should be prosecuted for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity very much like Nazi leaders and commanders were at the Nuremberg trials."
Isa said the Palestinian Authority was collecting evidence and documenting this "holocaust-like rampage" in Gaza.
"And when the time comes, we will present all evidences to the International Court of Justice at The Hague."
Bush's green light
A strong condemnation of home demolitions in Rafah came from Yossi Sarid, the former leader of Meretz and one of the leaders of the newly established centre-left party Yahad.
He describes the demolitions as war crimes.
"Rather than 'disengagement', Sharon’s plan is merely imprisoning a million
and a half Palestinians while then strengthening the settlements of
the West Bank and
Professor Jaff Hapler,
head, Israeli Society against Home Demolitions
"These are clear-cut war crimes that will tarnish Israel's image all over the world," said Sarid.
His spokesman, Roel Yolen, quoted Sarid as saying "Sharon couldn't have done what he is doing in Rafah without a green light from the Bush administration.
"But this won't help Sharon as much as the torture scandal in Iraq has not helped Bush."
Another leader of Yahad, Zahava Gal'on, reportedly wrote to Attorney-General Mani Mazuz asking him to order a stop to "these pornographic demolitions".
However, it is doubtful that the Israeli occupation army would heed such calls even if Mazuz issued an injunction ordering a halt to them.
Professor Jaff Hapler, head of the Israeli Society against Home Demolitions in the occupied territories, accused Israeli political leaders and military commanders of "lying to Israelis and deceiving the world".
Use of army tanks by Israel is
described as 'state terrorism'
"In presenting the deaths of the soldiers as a 'terrorist attack', the Israeli government conceals entirely the fact that they died as part of a military force invading Palestinian towns and cities, as part of a brutal 37-year occupation by Israel that shows no signs of ending ... Palestinian terror may be a symptom but it is the occupation that is the root cause."
Hapler said the true intention of Sharon was to keep full military control of Gaza, including the "sterile zone" at Rafah.
"He wants to keep Gaza encircled within an electronic fence, maintaining a military and economic blockade of the sea and controlling Palestinian airspace.
"Rather than 'disengagement', Sharon's plan is merely imprisoning a million and a half Palestinians while then strengthening the settlements of the West Bank and East Jerusalem."
Hapler called the wholesale onslaught of Israeli planes, tanks, missiles, bulldozers and troops on a totally unprotected and defenceless civilian centre as "state terrorism".
UN Security-General Kofi Annan has condemned the demolitions in Rafah as "inconsistent with the rule of international law".
"The secretary-general has repeatedly called on the government of Israel to address its security needs within the boundaries of international law," UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said in a statement.
"He urges Israel to uphold its obligations as an occupying power by immediately halting such actions which are tantamount to collective punishment and a clear violation of international law," he added.
Moreover, the foreign minister of Ireland, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, denounced the demolitions, demanding Israel should immediately halt the destruction of Palestinian homes.
However, Israel, which has consistently ignored and defied UN resolutions, is unlikely to heed UN and EU calls to that effect, thanks to the almost unlimited and unrestricted support and backing it receives from her guardian-ally, the United States.
The US has not condemned the demolitions in Rafah, raising questions about possible American-Israeli coordination in this regard.
The Israeli Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya'alon, was quoted as saying on Saturday Israel will continue to demolish homes in Rafah, irrespective of what the rest of the world thinks.
"In the past, we destroyed many homes, and apparently we will destroy many more homes in the future."