JEBALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip – Israeli troops struck deep inside the largest Palestinian refugee camp Thursday, battling masked gunmen in an unprecedented campaign to stop deadly rocket fire on Israeli towns. Twenty-eight Palestinians were killed and 131 wounded, the bloodiest single-day toll in fighting in 30 months.
Three Israelis — two soldiers and an Israeli woman jogger — were killed in two Palestinian shooting attacks in northern Gaza.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) approved a large-scale military operation in the northern Gaza Strip after meeting with advisers late Thursday, an Israeli official said. The plan was a response to the killing of two Israeli children, ages 2 and 4, by a Hamas (search) rocket attack on an Israeli border town Wednesday. However, he stopped short of ordering a call-up of reserves.
The plan, which has the backing of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, was unanimously approved by the Israeli security Cabinet on Thursday night.
The approval clears the way for Israeli troops to move in force into the Palestinian towns of Beit Lahiya, Beit Hanoun and the sprawling Jebaliya refugee camp (search), an official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The army's push Thursday into the center of Jebaliya — a first in four years of fighting — signaled a change in military tactics.
Since fighting erupted in 2000, the military has refrained from reoccupying large areas of crowded Gaza for long periods, for fear of getting bogged down in urban combat. The army has felt less constrained in the less densely populated West Bank.
Armored vehicles rolled into squalid Jebaliya, a militant stronghold with 106,000 residents, on Thursday morning. Throughout the day, masked Palestinians taking cover in camp alleys fired assault rifles — and occasionally anti-tank missiles and grenades — at tanks, which responded with machine-guns. Militants were seen laying explosive charges and unraveling detonation wire.
In the bloodiest incident, a tank fired a shell toward a group of gunmen, killing seven Palestinians and seriously wounding 23, including gunmen and civilians. Many of the wounded lost limbs, and at least four were under age 14, doctors said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) expressed grave concern at the escalation of violence and "especially mourns the death and injuries of children," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
Kamal Adwan Hospital was overwhelmed by the influx, and doctors had to treat some patients on the blood-soaked floor and on cafeteria tables.
Ahmed Salem, 10, said the shell was fired from a tank at a U.N. school near Jebaliya's market. "I was hit and fell to the ground. The man lying next to me had no head," said the boy, who was wounded by shrapnel in the leg.
Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the army commander in Gaza, said the shell was aimed at militants who had fired an anti-tank shell at an armored personnel carrier, lightly wounding three soldiers. Harel said several Palestinian children were apparently nearby. "We are very sorry that civilians are being hurt," Harel said, but accused gunmen of using civilians as a shield.
Palestinian militants have fired hundreds of rockets and mortar shells at Gaza settlements and Israeli border towns since 2000. Most attacks caused damage and minor injuries. There have been two deadly strikes, including Wednesday's hit on the border town of Sderot that killed two children as they played on the sidewalk in a quiet neighborhood at the onset of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
Continued rocket fire could turn public opinion against Sharon's plan to remove all settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005. His opponents argue a withdrawal would only encourage Palestinian militants to stage more attacks.
Palestinian militants have intensified attacks in recent months in hopes of portraying the Israeli withdrawal as a retreat under fire. Israeli troops, in turn, have stepped up military operations to pound militant groups before the pullout.
Israeli government spokesman Gideon Meir said Israel was forced to act after 11 previous operations in northern Gaza failed to stop the rockets. "The purpose of a wider operation is to protect the Israeli civilian areas," he said. "They (militants) want to show Israel is running out of Gaza under fire."
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat (search) denounced the Israeli raid as "a war crime and state terror," and said he feared all of Gaza would soon be reoccupied.
Israeli troops moved into northern Gaza Wednesday morning, several hours before the Sderot missile strike. By Thursday, they controlled the towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, as well as large areas of the Jebaliya camp.
Palestinian gunmen killed three Israelis — two soldiers and a woman settler — in two attacks in northern Gaza.
In one incident, two gunmen fired on an army observation post near Jebaliya, killing a soldier before being shot dead. Near the Jewish settlement of Elei Sinai, two attackers killed a woman jogger and an army medic who came to her aid. The gunmen were eventually killed by troops.
However, the heaviest fighting raged in Jebaliya. For the first time in four years of fighting, troops came close to the downtown market and set up two positions in the camp, one at a U.N. school and the second at a Palestinian police training center.
Army bulldozers demolished 22 homes along a relatively narrow road leading into the camp, U.N. aid officials said, apparently to widen it and allow more tanks to get through. Armored vehicles avoided the booby-trapped main street.
"A bulldozer entered our living room and demolished half the house," said Hussein al-Jamal, a resident of the camp's Block 2, adding that he and his family fled, along with many of his neighbors.
Thursday's deaths marked the highest one-day Palestinian toll since April 2002 when 35 were killed in the West Bank, during Defensive Shield, a major Israeli military operation.
More than 20 of the dead were killed in or near Jebalyia. In one incident late Thursday, troops fired a tank shell at a group of militants trying to launch a rocket-propelled grenade, the army said. Four men were killed, doctors said.
Of the 131 Palestinians wounded, 12 were in critical condition, doctors said.
A masked Hamas gunman carrying a rocket launcher said he expected Israeli soldiers to leave soon. "Jebaliya will be a burial ground for their soldiers," he boasted. "They will run away and we will stay."