RAFAH, Gaza Strip – Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved into a Gaza (search) refugee camp early Tuesday, hours after panicked residents fled amid fears of an incursion. Helicopters fired missiles at the camp, killing at least 11 and wounding 30, residents said.
As the bulk of Israeli forces deployed around the shantytown in preparation for a major operation, bulldozers and troops moved into an area known as the Tel Sultan (search) neighborhood, digging a trench to separate it from the rest of the camp, witnesses said. Soldiers backed by dozens of military vehicles searched house to house.
The moves early Tuesday appeared to start a major effort to widen a military patrol road between Rafah (search) and the Egyptian border to stop arms smuggling, arrest militants and widen a buffer zone. The decision came after Palestinians blew up an armored vehicle there last week, killing five soldiers assigned to destroy arms-smuggling tunnels.
The gunships attacked twice after midnight. Palestinians said that around dawn, two missiles killed at least eight people as they left a mosque following prayers. They said 23 others were wounded and part of the mosque set on fire. Hamas said that three of the dead were members of the militant group.
A few hours earlier, a helicopter fired three missiles, killing three people and wounding seven. Doctors said at least two of the dead were militants.
The Israeli military said both air strikes were aimed at groups of armed militants.
Frantic residents on Monday loaded belongings onto trucks and donkey carts and headed to the neighboring town, also named Rafah. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency set up shelters in schools and pitched a tent camp.
Women balanced mattresses on their heads, children carried blankets and men carted away sofas. One man lowered a cooking gas container by rope from a second-floor window, and another piled fire wood onto a horse cart.
Raouf Abu Jazar said dozens of people crowded his store, stocking up on rice, bottled water and baby food. "Many had no money to pay, but I gave them what they want, because we all are brothers," he said.
Last week, Israeli troops destroyed about 100 houses in the camp, and officials said hundreds more may be torn down. In all, more than 11,000 Palestinians in Rafah — out of a population of 90,000 — have been made homeless by Israeli demolitions since the outbreak of fighting in 2000.
At the United Nations in New York, Arab nations requested a Security Council meeting Tuesday to consider Israel's move against the camp.
The Arab Group called on members to take "necessary measures" against Israel for violating international law.
Palestinian militants planted bombs around Rafah, residents said. A 23-year-old Palestinian was killed early Tuesday when a bomb he was assembling exploded, they said.
Israeli security officials said they plan to expand the patrol road to a width of 250 yards, almost double its current size in some places. The army is also considering digging a deep trench, or even a moat, to block the tunnels that lead from Egypt to Rafah.
The Israeli patrol road was carved out in the 1980s after Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty and Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula.
The international border created then went through the camp, and thousands of houses were destroyed on both sides to create the Israeli-controlled zone, with compensation paid to the displaced.
Yuval Dvir, an Israeli reserve colonel who oversaw that destruction, said Israel must leave Gaza now, and the plan to widen the patrol road would not enhance Israeli security. "We are following our guts and not our brains," he told Israel Army Radio.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has proposed a unilateral pullout of soldiers and settlers from Gaza, but his party rejected the plan. Officials said Monday that he would make minor revisions in the plan and present it to his Cabinet later.
A senior Israeli official said an eventual pullout would not stop Israeli operations like the move into the Rafah camp.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Israeli intelligence shows the Palestinians, supported by Hezbollah and Hamas abroad, are trying to create a situation in Gaza like the one in Lebanon, by bringing in long-range missiles.
Hezbollah guerrillas pounded Israel's north with Katyusha rockets for two decades in a guerrilla war that ended with Israel's pullout from southern Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah is armed by Iran and Syria.
Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim said civilian hardships are unintentional but unavoidable. Some people in Rafah, he said, "rent their houses for digging tunnels, so not all of the people there are blameless."
A senior Israeli military official said high-ranking Palestinian security officers are involved in arms smuggling.
Palestinian security officials were not immediately available for comment.
Secretary of State Colin Powell denounced the destruction of houses, a rare U.S. criticism of Israeli policy.
On Monday, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath pleaded with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice during a meeting in Berlin to stop the Israeli offensive. Shaath told Rice he has received calls from fearful relatives.
"She (Rice) said that she and President Bush will act to stop what is going on in Rafah," Shaath said.
The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, met Sunday with the Israeli army chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, to discuss the Israeli operation.
"We understand Israel's need to defend itself from attacks, but as a matter of policy we oppose the use of home demolitions to achieve this end and we are concerned about the humanitarian consequences of such demolitions," said embassy spokesman Paul Patin.
Palestinian legislator Mohammed Hijazi said hundreds of families have left the camp since the exodus began Sunday; local officials put the number of evacuees at more than 2,000. UNRWA said Israel has demolished or damaged nearly 2,000 houses in Rafah since 2000.
Amr Moussa, Arab League secretary-general, condemned the destruction and charged that Israel's leaders are wrecking chances for peace. "Who would sit down with these people?" he asked.