Gaza mine-clearing teams waiting for Israeli okay
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GAZA CITY - A team trained to remove and destroy unexploded ordnance has been operating in the Gaza Strip for three weeks, but its work is being held up because Israel has not approved the entry of its equipment nor an area for storing and neutralizing ordnance. For now some of the latter, located by the Palestinian police, is being stored in locations that are dangerously close to population centers in Rafah, Khan Yunis and Gaza City.

The team was sent by the British humanitarian organization Mines Advisory Group, whose purpose is to reduce the danger to the local population posed by unexploded mines and other weapons in conflict zones around the world. MAG is co-laureate of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. In Gaza, the MAG team works in cooperation with the United Nations Mine Action Service.

The head of the team in Gaza told Haaretz that the actual work of neutralizing and destroying the explosives is not complicated, and that it is the coordination that takes time. The transfer of the ordnance to a safe location for controlled explosion must be coordinated with the Israel Defense Forces as well as with the Palestinian authorities in the Gaza Strip. The neutralization methods chosen will depend on the equipment Israel will allow in.

The IDF Spokesman's Office issued the following statement: "The conclusion that the IDF is not permitting the force's entry lacks all factual basis, since no response has been issued. The issue is being considered with a favorable eye and the IDF's answer will be given within a few days."

Military sources pointed out that the IDF Spokesman's Office issued, after the end of the military operation, a severe warning about the danger of unexploded ordnance and that several Arab news media reported the warning to Gaza Strip residents.

Despite the delays, the team has made some progress that does not depend on equipment: MAG's technical director, Mark Buswell, examined six main thoroughfares in the strip to make sure there are no mines or other ordnance that could explode on or near them. Nothing was found, and the roads were declared safe. MAG also examined 38 schools that sustained direct hits and removed large quantities of ordnance. UN facilities, industrial areas and water and sewage installations were also checked. White phosphorus bombs found in Gaza City and in the northern Gaza Strip last month and placed in a lot near police headquarters in Gaza City, near bombs with a collective weight of 7,500 kilograms, were neutralized by being submerged in water and covered with sand.

Buswell, who served in the British army for nine years, said the Palestinian police did a good job of removing and storing most of the unexploded ordnance. Kerei Ruru of the UN Mine Action Team said that unlike in Lebanon no cluster bombs were found in the Gaza Strip and no evidence was found that Israel had used depleted uranium. Buswell said the team found no Palestinian mines, only indications of antitank mines used by the IDF to blow up Palestinian homes. MAG also found no evidence that Hamas had booby-trapped buildings. Buswell said that if there were still any boobytrapped homes, people would have been injured and the team has received no reports of such injuries.

By Amira Hass, Haaretz Correspondent

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  Haaretz | Feb 17

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